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.
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.