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Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Core Problems with ObamaEd

The most important fact about President Obama’s speech about college affordability in Buffalo is that he left out the three core problems facing higher education today--or he made them worse.  These problems are:

1.    public funding cuts, which has caused outright poverty for the local colleges most likely to serve poor students
2.    lack of professional autonomy, in which faculty, staff, and students are not allowed to do their jobs without constant interference from external bureaucrats
3.    inadequate educational quality, in which student learning is eclipsed by entry and exit statistics

President Obama knows perfectly well that public tuition increases have moved in lockstep with state cuts, and said so in passing.  These cuts have caused a crisis that has been particularly bad at the entry level of the college system, where the majority of poorer students start.  For example, the supposedly open California Community College system turned away tens of thousands of students during the state’s budget crisis.  Even as funding has stabilized, students there have their progress impeded by the fact that there are 2000 of them per advisor. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the restraints under which public colleges now operate.  We have downgraded our national public university system, and wonder why it isn’t working as well as it should.

Decades of economic Reaganism generate an automatic rebuttal to these kinds of facts, which is that more money won’t help the schools—they need more rules, more compliance, and fewer unions that resist compliance.   Overall this claim is false, and it is easy to see on the college level if one compares funding levels and graduation rates.
For example, in the University of Michigan system, I’ve compared the Ann Arbor flagship, with its bevy of well-to-do in- and out-of-state students, to the Dearborn and Flint campuses (relatively Arab-American and African American).  I found 3 to 4 times the Pell Grant (low-income) share at the Dearborn and Flint campuses compared to the flagship; ½ the per capita tuition funds; ½ the per capita state funding; and, no huge surprise, ½ the graduation rate at the local campuses.  This is a function not just of selectivity but more importantly of lesser academic services at the poorer campuses going to poorer students—less advising, counseling, tutoring, intensive feedback, mentoring, research possibilities, and other things that increase student persistence. In graduation rates, you get what you pay for.
Since no one wants big tuition hikes, the only way to increase the graduation rate is to make a major public reinvestment, starting with poor colleges with bad rates.  But President Obama didn’t call for major restoration or rebuilding of state investment in public colleges, and there is only one minor tool in his auditing kit that would encourage it.  His charge that colleges just raise fees and pass on the costs to the taxpayer smacked of Ronald Reagan’s waste, fraud, and abuse paradigm for public services.  This can only damage the future case for the new public revenues the sector obviously needs.

This brings us to the question of professional autonomy.  Autonomy is cheaper than administration, because you don't have to pay for a compliance bureaucracy.  This is a big deal at universities, whose every interaction with the federal government involves complex reporting on everything from the sports programs to research grants and financial aid. Universities have to pay for this, and they charge students to do it.  The Obama plan will only increase these costs, and add to the administrative bloat that is a major source of the cost growth that everyone dislikes.

There’s a deeper issue here too. Professionals have expertise in their area and auditors don’t. This means than on the whole, the professional staff and faculty who work in the classroom and laboratory trenches know more about their educational issues and answers than do senior managers on campus or in statehouses, to say nothing of Washington D.C.   Authority has been shifting for decades from experts to the managers who control the experts’ organizations.  K-12 micromanagement through testing is one major example, and another is the power of insurance company executives and on-site care-managers over practicing physicians, which has made medicine more expensive while in many accounts damaging the quality of primary care.

Barack Obama is a full-fledged member of audit and supervisory culture, and is willing to impair professional judgment on the ground for the sake of collecting data elsewhere. I understand the case for data and for using it to fix performance problems.  This case motivates the part of the plan that will tie at least some federal financial aid to school performance, along “Race to the Top” lines.  A higher education scholar I admire, Sara Goldrick-Rab, in describing herself as a fan of the president’s rating and financial aid plan, argues, "Colleges that won’t commit to providing accessible, affordable, high-quality postsecondary education should not be receiving federal Title IV funds, period."  She’s right. If the plan goes through, the sector most at risk of sanctions is the subprime for-profit sector that gets 90% of its revenues from the government to produce the worst graduation and student debt rates in the country’s history.  Forcing educational upgrades here would be a wonderful thing.

The catch is that an auditing program needs to distinguish colleges that won’t produce good outcomes for reasons of self-interest from colleges that can’t produce good outcomes for reasons out of their control.  Many people have already pointed out that exactly those colleges that take on the challenge of underprepared or overworked or poorer students are also likely to be caught in the federal dragnet.  The solution for the first group is to cut their federal subsidy. The solution for the second group is to increase their funding. How do we tell these kinds of schools apart?

Statistics alone isn’t going to tell the difference: you can't lump UM-Flint together with a Kaplan college even though the causes of their similarly poor graduate rates are completely different.  You can tell the difference if you work closely with the professionals at the schools to see what the are doing, who their students are, and why, in detail, they get good or bad results.  Audit blocks the reciprocity and respect on which effective reform depends. Coercion is a form of ignorance, and it’s overuse in the president’s plan will make current problems worse.

I have to stop, and will pick up with the third issue and some better alternatives this weekend.


Sara Goldrick-Rab said...

Hi Chris,

I'm a fan of yours too. In this particular case, I urge you to be a bit optimistic and get involved in crafting the metrics. Obama's team knows very, very well what's driving costs in public universities and they are seeking ways to bring states to the table. It's simply hard to do-- but it IS in the plan.

Similarly, we know that restoring faculty to their rightful place in colleges and universities is important. Right now, administrators are in control and are making decisions that lower educational quality and raise prices. Putting faculty in charge will do the opposite. Again, help us make that happen.

The best news I can offer is that the people leading this higher ed charge are well-aware of the lessons from NCLB and are trying to do much, much better. We need the brightest minds engaged in this work. Put out specific recommendations, share them with people who can get you in the room, and overall, BE INVOLVED.


Leslie Bary said...

Excellent piece!

Anonymous said...

And/but: will all those who need to see it, see it? Are you sending this to Obama and the WSJ? I think you should.

james hoff said...

Spot on analysis and I am looking forward to reading the rest. I have been deeply distressed by the general liberal embrace of this plan and it is nice to finally see some dissenting voices, even if they are just in the blogosphere. However, with all due respect to Sara, I'm frankly astounded by the naivete of her suggestion that you somehow become involved in this process. Educators are not driving this reform movement and never have been. Lumina and the BIll and Melinda Gates Foundations, along with a handful of other privately funded philanthropic foundations have been pushing this agenda for about a decade now and they have found a very cynically receptive ally in President Obama. No one is going to let you or me be involved in the process of HigherEd Reform. All we can do now is resist, organize, raise hell, and keep demanding more funding for quality, liberal arts, public higher education.

Sara Goldrick-Rab said...

Wow, James, I'm sad to hear that you think educators aren't involved in this process. Many of us are. If you'd like to be too, and Chris easily could be, then just say so.

I know all about the foundation involvement, but I also know who is in the room at these meetings and who is having influence. There ARE educators there, and I am one of them.

Leslie B. said...

See also AAUP statement:


Anonymous said...

In my naivete about this field, I am going to throw a question out: are there studies that have looked at outcomes (e.g., BA/BS graduation rates) in robust regression models with social backgrounds of students as controls (parental education, own income, family income, minority status, ELL, gender, age, part-time/full-time, etc.) as well as per student instructional funding levels across a range of universities? This would seem to be a way of making progress on understanding the success/limitations of the Michigan-Flints of the world in comparison to the Michigan-Ann Arbors. I teach at the University of Texas at El Paso, which is 80% plus minority, broadly low income and first-in-family in college, working class commuter school. I think we do a decent job, not perfect, but we are crucified in Texas by the use of descriptive statistics to compare universities, losing the context of such metrics. Yet we know perfectly well how to introduce controls in cross-sectional data. This would not be perfect (cross-section =/= causation); education is more than graduation rates; etc. But it would be a step in the direction suggested in this essay.

Anonymous said...

In my enthusiasm for this topic, I posted before researching. My apologies. Unsurprisingly, the things I suggested have been done. Of course, there are flaws. But even so, the results are as expected: most of the difference in graduation rates is removed by controlling for student background and (less well developed) institutional factors like funding levels. Of course, individual schools vary up or down from the regression equations, which is something of interest (though it needs to be interpreted cautiously). More importantly, we now confront the central social-political fact: crude descriptive statistics are used to attack working class-student public colleges and universities. If we know better, why is this...well, not so mysterious, but that means being blunt about social hypocrisy and attacking the weak. No excuse for lousy institutions of all types, but that's not how the numbers and analysis are being used.

Chris Newfield said...

Sara, you make a good point in your post about identifying bad actors with the cut off of 75% of revenues from federal programs (http://eduoptimists.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/what-we-need-to-hear-from-president.html). I agree this can and should be done. But it needs to be coupled with massive public advocacy for restoring correct levels of public investment starting with poor public colleges, and that is exactly what Pres Obama did not do. I noted that he does reference state cuts, but his frame in the Lakoff sense is all wrong--it's Reaganite, and he won't be able to claw back new investment once he's set up a monitoring scheme that is explicitly about keeping those public colleges from costing you so much money via their outrageous tuition hikes. Misstated problems never find correct solutions, and he has led off by misstating the core problem. I would be happy to be part of an effort to fix this mistake, and to proclaim what a wonderful work of genius our public colleges and universities are, and how they will transform the country if unshackled from the medieval chains of our austerity. I have experience with trying to do this in California in the face of a different (also Obama-like) strategy from the senior managers who control the political interface, who always stressed their willingness to take cuts, impose furloughs, proclaim massive possible savings through IT innovation, etc. which gave state gov the excuse of "UC's potential internal savings" to cut, and I think a version of this happened this year in Wisconsin, without ever explaining that cuts had already damaged educational (and research) quality and why for society's sake this had to stop (even as the U had to fix admin payroll bloat, exec salary abuses, etc). So I would like to hear people in the ed policy system say yes, let's flip this around, and say our colleges are wonderful and job 1 is reinvesting and down this list is fixing our monitoring system, which is not the pride and joy of policy but a technical thing we'll tell you about if we have time after talking about the great wave of budgetary democratization our public colleges are going to experience thanks to us. (I express my skepticism through some minor exaggeration, and higher ed desperately need budgetary democratization.)
UTEP: this is EXACTLY the kind of thing I am worried about via these metrics. I am going to try to sit down today long enough to finish part 3, and will talk a bit about Arum & Roksa's regressions around learning- thanks for raising this.

Chris Newfield said...

another example of the "our crooked colleges" frame is Matt Taibbi's powerful piece on the student loan crisis (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/ripping-off-young-america-the-college-loan-scandal-20130815?print=true).
There IS a dead body here--the welfare of college graduates--but in the absence of a public narrative in which public colleges are victims of Republican privatization /disinvestment and Democrat austerian complicity, that is, where bad economic theory "made them do it" (raise tuition), colleges will be the prime suspect in the murder of a generation's financial future, and gov programs like Title IV will be cast as part of the same semi-criminal enterprise

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