Can Obama’s Higher Education Reform Pass?

Obama’s higher education reform is ambitious. In fact, one could call it ambitious if the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. With the current, divided Congress, it looks like something between wishful thinking and a kamikaze crash. Some might wonder why Obama bothered to introduce this plan, or any plan for anything ambitious really. There is little to no chance these proposals will survive in the House of Representatives. Obama’s plan calls for more government oversight, with complicated caveats, which conservatives can’t stand. Plus, agreeing with Obama on almost anything can have political consequences for red-state representatives.

Obama, edtech, higher education reform

Obama’s Higher Education Reform Faces Challenges in Congress

So why did he do it? Well, looking more closely, we can see that many of his proposals don’t actually require Congressional approval. For example, he asked the Dept of Education to create a new university ranking system based on value, affordability, and other factors by 2015. By 2018, he wants to tie those ranks to the distribution of financial aid. For the first task, he doesn’t need approval. For the second, he does, but not until 2018, more than a year after he leaves office.

By that time, the rankings system will have been in place for a few years. Maybe if it works well, Congress will go for it. Maybe they won’t. If not, Obama will lose a key element in his reform plan, but some important goals are still likely to be accomplished. Schools will hopefully begin paying attention to these issues in the same way, or even more carefully, than factors like selectivity and average test scores that improve standing in US News & World Report’s annual ranking.

It is a bit like one of those diets where they ask you to write things down. Even if you don’t consciously change your behavior, the fact that you are writing it down and paying attention influences your habits. Check it out here, if you don’t believe me. Hopefully, the Education Dept’s rankings can bring this sort of awareness to the nation’s colleges and universities. Earlier this year, the Dept website already began publishing more information about colleges and universities on its College Scorecard webpage.

On loan repayment, the President’s administration can make some significant progress, even without Congress. Obama cannot automatically make all borrowers eligible for the pay-as-you-earn program without Congress. He can extend eligibility to all direct loan (from the Education Dept) borrowers, though, just not those that borrowed through the FFEL program, which was discontinued in 2010. And those in the FFEL program can generally convert loans into direct loans, so in a sense, most borrowers are eligible, if they take the time and effort to make themselves so. The Education Dept does not need approval for its awareness program, which basically educates students and recent grads about their eligibility for benefits.

Finally, for the new emphasis on technology, discussed in our last post, the Obama administration has few congressional hurdles. Of course, many of the bullet points on the plan are simply statements of support, so it is tough to stop measures that are not specifically spelled out yet. In terms of announced funding, Obama will need congressional approval for his $260 million “First in the World” program promoting innovation, but not for the Labor Dept’s $500 million program for accelerated degree programs at community colleges and some four-year universities.

For the competency-based credit system and the re-design of courses and student services through technology, all areas which are important for Rukuku and its business, the administration is free to begin launching experimental programs. We’re excited about that and looking forward to joining in. Let the innovation begin.

Class Dismissed

Is it time to question the traditional, expensive education models? Does education need to equate to decades of debt? Could education be acquired outside universities?

Is it time to question the traditional, expensive education models? Does education need to equate to decades of debt? Could education be acquired outside universities?

Throughout history, or at least the part I know about, students have sat through class, impatiently waiting for a bell to ring, a clock to tick enough ticks, enough sand to run through the hourglass, a teacher to utter the words, class dismissed. Well, that waiting may be over for good, at least for some university students.

On Monday, the US Department of Education approved Capella University’s FlexPath programs for bachelors and masters degrees. FlexPath allows students to get credit for classes by performing well on competency examinations, with no requirements on class attendance. In other words, as long as students can prove they have the knowledge, they can get credit for the class.

This is the first accredited program in the country to make such an offer. The implications are profound and affect several types of students. First, older students, who may have more experience in their particular field, can avoid spending time in classes on topics about which they are already familiar.

Second, bright, motivated students will also benefit. The Doogie Howsers of the world no longer need to sit through classes covering material that they already understand or could understand very easily by studying on their own. In such a competency-based program, these students could easily pass through lower level classes at a much more rapid pace than your average student.

Finally, and most importantly, this program will drive down prices. Universities can hardly justify their astronomically high fees when students work through material at their own pace, at home, with professors offering support but not serving as the centerpiece of the course. The university’s responsibility is as much evaluation as direct teaching.

We talk a lot in this blog about disruptive technologies, and thus far, computers and the internet have only had minimal effects on education, at least when compared to industries such as travel, music, and consumer retail. To see an example, just pass by your local bookstore, or at least the spot where it used to be.

The awarding of credits has complicated the transformation of education through technology. Students need personalized evaluations from their professors, gauging their participation in class and performance on homework as well as exams. Professors can only work with so many students, and their time is not cheap.

Shifting to a competency-based system of evaluation for credit opens many opportunities for students that have learned their skills through less traditional means, including non-credit online courses. For the universities, it offers opportunities to reduce costs. It also puts pressure on them to improve the value of their students’ experiences, in and out of the classroom.

I went to a four-year college and had an excellent time. I made many friends and gained much, not only from my time inside class but my time outside of class as well. With tuition prices soaring, however, today’s students are questioning whether those experiences are worth decades of student debt payments.  It is an important question, and universities will increasingly have to provide a satisfactory response.