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What College Offers: And What Obama's Higher Education Proposal Leaves Out

James Grossman, October 2013

"Describe a society where scarcity is not the primary determinant of value."

James GrossmanMy father-in­law confronted this question on a final exam at DePauw University during the Great Depression. When I met him approximately a half­century later he still remembered it. The answer, of course, doesn't matter. What matters are the myriad questions stimulated by the assignment, across disciplines from economics, to history, sociology, philosophy, and religion. What matters is that he had learned the value not of scarcity, but of college.

This is what was missing from President Obama's speech on higher education in August: the value of college. The omission is ironic. The fact sheet distributed beforehand by the White House Press Office mentions "value" 18 times in just a few pages: a rating system that will provide students with "information to select schools that provide value"; frequent reference to "institutions providing the best value"; encouraging "practices for providing high value at low costs.

"So obviously "value" matters to the president. But what are his determinants of value?

Again the White House Press Office offers specificity not always clear in the soaring rhetoric of a speech: "metrics like: How much debt does the average student leave with? How easy is it to pay off? How many students graduate on time? How well do those graduates do in the workforce? Because the answers will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers.

"So one set of determinants of "value" are those that help the individual student make an informed decision. A second set of criteria emerge more clearly from the speech itself, with its emphasis on three broad rubrics: access, affordability, and outcomes. Each institution's "value" to the taxpayers can be measured according to the extent to which it broadens access to higher education, does not require a student to take on a substantial burden of debt, and yields high graduate rates along with job placements that apparently would be measured also by income levels.

At first glance, the overlap between interests of individual students and either "we the people" or "the taxpayer" (depending on how one defines the public interest) is gratifying. Higher education is good for individuals because it gives them access to a middle class life ("some form of higher education is the surest path into the middle class"), and it's good for the nation because it builds the middle class that is the foundation of national prosperity and stability (Jefferson would have agreed heartily though one might note that Americans could also enter his middle class through the alchemy of property in land and people).

"This is a country that early on made a commitment to put a good education within the reach of all who are willing to work for it," Obama proclaimed. Well, not quite all, but as Richard J. Daley's press secretary legendarily pleaded, "Don't write what he said, write what he meant." And what the president means here is sensible: this is a nation with a long history of idealizing both the middle class itself and conventional assumptions about class mobility. In the 21st century, this means that all Americans must have affordable access to a college education, with graduation depending only on a student's willingness to do the work.

In this context, the president's proposed ratings system is reasonable. Students ought to be able to choose a college based on information that is reliable and relevant. And taxpayers ought to support those institutions that are doing the most to promote the public interest at a reasonable cost to public coffers.

But it's not so simple. What information do students actually need to make informed choices? Graduation rates, coupled with time to graduation, seem like a straightforward metric. But what about employment? Most of the statistics that have been thrown around in this conversation speak more to "jobs" than "careers." That's why the history major, if seen through this limited perspective, looks like an unwise decision: history majors seem to spend a bit more time after college figuring out what to do next than many of their counterparts. Is this a bad thing? I think not. Maybe we have done a good job of teaching them about complexity, about the ways in which decisions have broad consequences and therefore ought to be made carefully and generously. Or maybe they come away from their college education interested in thinking about how they can serve their communities before embarking on a career. Low salaries for those jobs; maybe a good career path. But bad for the college's ratings.

Moreover, not all students are the same. How minutely will those graduation rates be parsed in the ratings? College X has a high graduation rate, but is not a good place for certain types of students who learn in certain ways, or who need a certain kind of peer environment to succeed. Our current system has its faults, but it remains the envy of the world in part because of its incredible variety, and the problem is not the availability of information about that variety: it is access to that information through proper college counseling.

I have searched high and low in the discourse about transparency and ratings, and cannot find references to increasing the availability and quality of college counseling to disadvantaged students. How many students reject a whole category of institutions because "I can't possibly afford it," without having any idea of the financial aid available?

How many students go to college not knowing much about the experiences at that institution of people like themselves? How many students go to college thinking, mistakenly, that their high school "college level" course is indeed equivalent to the introduction that they need to succeed at the next level? How many students drop out because they chose a college that looked good on paper but wasn't the right place for them?

Nor is affordability quite so straightforward. Again, we need to parse the data across this broad terrain of American higher education. Debt? What happens when we strip out proprietary and trade schools from the statistics? The Obama administration's admirable attempts to regulate such institutions have seldom nudged their unfortunate students out of the pool of data on student debt. Massive tuition increases due to runaway costs? Actually more than half of all American college students outside of the for-profit sector attend institutions whose cost per student has been either falling or stagnant over the past decade. Tuition has increased because these are publicly funded institutions that have shifted the financial burden to students as state legislators continue to cut taxes and/or shift budgetary priorities away from higher education. Where costs have risen-at research universities, public and private-the calculations seldom include measurements of those institutions (not to mention their graduates) to public health, culture, or economic development.

This is the rub. President Obama has wisely argued that we have to ask not only what the value of college is to the student, but also to "we the people." And that value cannot be measured only in terms of graduation and employment rates. These are essential, but not sufficient metrics. The White House has also declared a commitment to "develop new ways for colleges to demonstrate that they are helping their students learn." This should include a broad notion of what students learn, and how they learn it.

Let us not assume that it is mainly a matter of technology-which by the way is part of the reason for the increases in cost. Will the metrics include the proportion of students on foreign study? The proportion of undergraduates who engage in research? The ratio of students to full-time faculty? The development of social skills useful to work and community life? The opportunity to experience failure without catastrophic consequences? I hope so. Because these are more than "inputs" into some readily measurable outcome. They are among the building blocks of the value of college itself. We do not want a system that makes such experiences scarce because we have undervalued education as a process.

-James Grossman is executive director of the AHA.