President Obama knows what's driving the increase in college tuition
, at least at public colleges and universities. A new White House fact sheet on making college more affordable says:
Declining state funding has forced students to shoulder a bigger proportion of college costs; tuition has almost doubled as a share of public college revenues over the past 25 years from 25 percent to 47 percent.
Later, it notes, "declining state funding has been the biggest reason for rising tuition at public institutions."
And Obama wants to make real changes to make college more affordable, writing in an email to supporters that "Just tinkering around the edges won’t be enough."
So, uh, why are the changes he proposes just tinkering around the edges, not addressing the basic problem of declining state funding? Part of the answer is clear, of course: Obama can't make the states increase funding for higher education, and he can't get Congress to do it, either. But why not at least focus on the real issue? Instead, he identifies state funding as a key factor driving tuition increases, then proceeds to suggest a whole slew of ways to tinker around the edges, as we'll see below the fold.
10:54 AM PT: A full transcript of President Obama's remarks on college affordability, delivered at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is here.
Identifying colleges "that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds"? Sure! Base federal student aid on college performance? Okay, that at least might penalize predatory for-profit colleges. But what's value? Of the measures the White House mentions, graduation and transfer rates are important, but there's an obvious incentive there for colleges to graduate people even if they're not ready, in order to look better in the rankings. Including graduate earnings and advanced degrees in the rankings provides colleges with a whole bunch of incentives we might rather they not have, including a focus on recruiting students who are exactly the opposite of disadvantaged, students whose parents can help hook them up with high-paying jobs or pay for grad school.
And again, does this look like anything but tinkering around the edges?
A set of proposals to "increase accountability" are similarly either mere tinkering or else they're the kind of hand-waving we so often see, wherein increasing accountability really means shifting the burden to individuals rather than improving the system. Then, of course, there's "promoting innovation and competition." Technology, in the form of online courses and online advising, will save us! Or at least make the already overwhelmingly low-paid, part-time, temporary workforce currently teaching college courses even more low-paid, part-time, and contingent. Without touching the CEO model for college presidents and widespread administrative bloat.
This is a shameful display from the president. He makes clear he knows what's wrong—but he's not taking on the real culprits. Instead, he's making a big show of political bravado, talking about how his ideas may upset some people, but those people are college professors, not the state legislators and governors who have been cutting education funding to the point where, again, "declining state funding has been the biggest reason for rising tuition at public institutions," and not the Congress. Some of his ideas are fine, some of them are seriously questionable, but the specific proposals for college affordability are totally a side issue, because the president is ducking the big issue.