Questions about White House plan for higher education

We’ve written before about our reaction to the White House plan for college affordability. The American Federation of Teachers agrees with the White House that college costs have grown unacceptably high. As educators, we are concerned about student success and we recognize that navigating our diverse system of higher education can seem confusing. We believe that meaningful solutions to college affordability must consider questions of college access, invest in student-centered faculty-driven learning, and preserve the diversity of our higher education system that is held up as a model to the world.

At the same time we remain profoundly concerned that an accountability system based on ratings, particularly where student aid is connected to these ratings, is not in the best interest of student and will lead to the further stratification of higher education.

The Department of Education has decided to hold a listening tour to begin gathering input on this plan. We are eager to engage the administration on this issue and we encourage all of our members to take part as well. Below are some questions generated by the AFT Higher Education department with help from our twitter and facebook followers. Please consider them and add more in the comments.

The listening tour will be held:
November 6, California State University’s Dominguez Hills, Los Angeles, CA
November 13, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
November 15, the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA
November 21, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA

The White House plan for college affordability has three parts, which we will address separately.

Paying for performance:
In recent years success in higher education is defined by numbers. In our K-12 education system we have seen the disastrous results of basing funding on what is easy to measure (though things in higher ed are not exactly easy to measure, that will be a separate section altogether) but “paying for performance” sounds to us too much like No Child Left Behind Goes to College. This is not to deflect blame from institutions, which have a responsibility to serve students well (check out our student success plan as well as some examples of our feelings about fraud and abuse which can be found here, here and here) but to encourage the administration to focus on what really matters. The hyper-emphasis on getting students admitted to college and getting them to graduate has been unfairly neglecting the quality of the education that is meant to happen between those points.

We would ask:
1. Why another ratings system when we have so many and their failures are so well documented?
2. How will the rating system group institutions to offer true apples-to-apples comparisons to students?
3. Given that the effect of what one studies is greater than where on studies, will the rating system take program of study into account or will all metrics be at the institutional level?
4. How will this compare to state-based performance funding systems? Is there a particular state system the Department of Education is looking to as a model?
5. What are the performance measures that you hope will be tied to Title IV funds?
6. Will any of the performance measures focus on educational rigor and/or quality?
7. Will ‘paying for performance’ represent a net gain in Title IV funds or is this a redistribution of the (insufficient) funding levels available currently?
8. Will the ‘pay’ for performance be distributed to students or to institutions or in some other way?
9. How will this plan account for different institutional missions, like open-access community colleges?
10. How will this plan account for developmental education and non-degree seeking learning?

Promoting innovation and competition:
If the White House plan to pay for performance reminds us of No Child Left Behind then the promoting innovation and competition section is Race to the Top Goes to College. Forcing institutions (or systems or states, we don’t yet know who will be competing exactly) to compete against one another for scarce resources does not promote a culture of sharing, transparency, and trust that we believes leads to true student success. It is under this section that White House officials including President Obama have discussed the possibilities of technology in higher education. New technologies like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are tremendous educational resources with exciting potential. However, we are concerned technology will be used to provide a quick and cheap bare minimum education for some students while providing an additional perk to already excellent elite education. Especially considering the competitive atmosphere created by the proposed grant programs, what incentive do innovators have to share what works?

We would ask:
11. Why another competitive grant program that will result in only some applicants receiving aid as opposed to an initiative that rewards all good-faith efforts to help students?
12. If the grant program is competitive and awards limited, won’t that encourage applicants to be protective of their innovations?
13. How do we prevent innovation for innovation’s sake?
14. How do we ensure quality in new practices and avoid treating students like canaries in coalmines?
15. In your model of competition who is competing with whom?
16. Will promoting innovation and competition mean an increase in funds available for university-based research?
17. How can the Department help ensure (potential) cost savings from innovative practices are passed onto students and not kept by the institution?

Student debt:
The $1.2 trillion in existing educational debt is a drain on millions of families and the economy at large. Since taking office the Obama Administration has made several important changes to student loan programs that allow borrowers the flexibility they need to avoid default. However, these programs are underutilized and can be confusing. We applaud the White House for taking steps to make these programs more well-known. We also support the White House in their plan to better prepare borrowers before they take on student debt. We urge the White House to carefully consider state disinvestment as a root cause of student debt, and investigate strategies the federal government can use to support state investment.

We would ask:
18. State disinvestment in higher education is at a 25 year low, while tuition has risen steadily. In your view, what role does state disinvestment play in student debt and what should states and the federal government be doing about it?
19. How do we incentivize high achieving, but highly debt-burdened students to go into fields like teaching that don’t offer big paychecks? (especially if institutions will now be rated on student earnings)
20. What can be done to simplify the application process to different federal student loan repayment programs? Especially in situations where people are utilizing multiple programs (such as Pay as You Earn and Public Service Loan Forgiveness) and forced to enter duplicate information.
21. Does the department plan to change the FAFSA?
22. Many borrowers consolidated student loans before the recession at interest rates much higher than are available today, will there be any relief available to this group of borrowers?
23. Why is Sallie Mae still servicing student loans despite the high level of complaints and the ongoing investigations into their practices?

Data Questions:
After carefully considering what the fully fleshed-out White House plan for college affordability could look like, our next question is how. Considering the current problems with data gathering in higher education and the potential burden on institutions we have several questions regarding the data that will make this plan a reality.

We would ask:
24. How will this data be gathered?
25. Who will be responsible for gathering the data?
26. Does the department plan to restore the student-unit record?
27. Does the department plan to change the way graduation rates are calculated?
28. How will student and faculty privacy be protected?
29. What will be the process for determining the definition of different metrics or altering current definitions to reflect these updates?

We hope this list shows that despite our concerns, we are eager to engage with the Department of Education and the White House on our shared goal of college affordability.

[Nicole Hochsprung]

2 Responses to Questions about White House plan for higher education

  1. William Lipkin November 10, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    Once again it seems that the role of adjunct and contingent faculty have been overlooked in these issues by AFT.

  2. Betsy Smith November 10, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    Did I miss the questions on how the overuse of contingent faculty affects student learning? Until this issue is addressed, we will have an ever-increasing cohort of second-tier faculty teaching an ever-increasing cohort of second-tier students. I assume that I don’t need to recite the specifics here, but if anyone reading this isn’t aware of them, just add a comment and I’ll be happy to educate you. When our major unions do not even allude to this problem, it is a huge disservice to both students and faculty.

    I do have a question about a small bit of phrasing: “State disinvestment in higher education is at a 25 year low.” Isn’t state investment in higher ed at a 25 year low, or isn’t state disinvestment in higher ed at a 25 hear high?

    Betsy Smith/Adjunct Professor of ESL/Cape Cod Community College