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Can We Cut Our Way to Quality?

Tyler Stovall, July 2013

As American colleges and universities open another academic year, President Obama has given a major address on higher education. The president’s college affordability plan addresses the important issue of student indebtedness and its impact on the crisis of the American middle class. It would be hard to overstate the gravity of this problem: college students and graduates now carry over $1 trillion of student loan debt, more than any other form of indebtedness except mortgage interest. Combined with the stagnation of middle class incomes, college affordability is a major worry for millions who worry if this classic ticket to the American dream may be increasingly out of reach. 

While I congratulate our president for addressing this issue, I am less convinced of the ability of his proposed plan to make a real difference in large part because I am not sure he has framed the question in the most effective way. In opening his speech the president emphasized the importance of higher education, arguing that “A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future.” Most economists would agree, many arguing that viewed strictly from a financial angle a college education pays a better return than any other investment most Americans make. President Obama also pointed to the history of the GI Bill as an example of past public investment in college affordability, and criticized the tendency of some states to spend more on incarceration than education. Given this emphasis on the importance of higher education to creating and preserving the middle class, one would expect a speech by the president of the United States to outline a major program of public investment in America’s colleges and universities. 

Instead, the president offered a series of ideas on how to get colleges to cut costs and make education more affordable. It is worth emphasizing that his speech did little to address the reasons why college has become increasingly out of reach for so many. He alluded to the massive disinvestment in public higher education by state governments, but gave little sense of its true magnitude, or why states have cut back so drastically on educational expenditures. Neither did he note the extent to which rising tuition, especially at many private universities and colleges, has been offset by increased financial aid, so that often only a minority of students pays full fare. Moreover, the president’s speech did not consider how much many colleges and universities have already cut expenditures; tuition increases have only offset 60 percent of state cuts to public research universities (and 14 percent of cuts to community colleges), according to a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

The heart of the president’s speech proposed new federal rankings of universities according to which deliver the best value, and the use of federal student aid to reward the best (and presumably punish the worst). It is not clear what “value” in this context means; rather than educational quality, it seems to indicate a combination of low cost, high graduation rates, and lucrative job placement. Clearly the plan is still a work in progress, but some of the metrics proposed to measure value are problematic. For example, if colleges and universities are evaluated on graduation rates does that mean those which enroll large numbers of low-income students, who traditionally take longer to finish, will be penalized even though serving a diverse student body is another important metric? More troublesome is the idea of judging schools on how much their graduates earn. Will this be measured over 10 years past graduation, 20 years, more? Will schools that graduate more humanists than engineers be penalized? What about institutions that send large numbers of graduates to Teach for America or graduate school? Finally, the idea that MOOCs and other forms of online education can cut educational costs while retaining quality remains to be seen; while online instruction has a lot of value and potential, it also requires significant investments of time and money to do correctly. 

The question of online education brings me back to the broader issue of investment in higher education. The crisis of college affordability is directly related to disinvestment by state governments, and only a serious commitment to reversing that trend will make a difference. Unless the president’s college affordability plan makes that issue a central focus, I fear it will fail not only to address effectively the rising cost of higher education but also endanger the quality of America’s colleges and universities, which remain in spite of everything some of the best in the world.

—Tyler Stovall is a professor of French history and the dean of the Undergraduate Division of the College of Letters & Science at the University of California, Berkeley.