President’s Reforms Underwhelm

By Kevin Daley
Opinion Editor

Buffalonians rightly swelled with pride this week when graced with the honor of a Presidential visit. The President spoke to a crowded Alumni Arena at UB Wednesday morning and outlined his ideas for reducing the skyrocketing cost of college tuition and reducing the heavy burden of debt felt by students and families across the country. While the issue weighs heavily on Canisius students and is deserving of urgent national attention, one is compelled to acknowledge disappointing political realities before examining the substance of the President’s proposals.

Though I am rarely one for pessimism, we should look for little in the way of tangible government action in the coming months (though this might be for the better.) Worthy a cause though it is, reducing tuition does not occupy a place of importance on the national policy agenda in this political climate, as Congress has more pressing business to attend to. For example, the continuing resolution that presently funds the federal government is set to expire on September 30th, and passing an appropriations bill to ensure continuity of services will no doubt be Congress’s top priority when they reconvene from August recess. It is a process that will no doubt involve weeks of partisan posturing and demagoguery that will almost certainly be solved at the last possible minute, as once again Congress will fall victim to a crisis they themselves created.

There’s also December’s debt ceiling vote, which Republicans will almost certainly use as an opportunity to strike a deal with President Obama on tax reform, further cuts to discretionary spending, or (I dare to dream) entitlement reform. Again, it will occupy weeks of attention and energy. What’s more, there’s unfinished business on immigration reform in the House and we’re nearing the high water mark of ObamaCare implementation. There’s a lot going on. And not a lot of time. Finally, President Obama is inching ever closer to lame-duckery, the point at which his ability to curry favor, exert influence, or dole out patronage will be severely inhibited because his Presidency is almost over. We can hope for reform, but it probably isn’t coming. Timing matters in politics, and right now the timing is worse than that time I shaved drunk.

I was not enthused at the White House’s new proposals. There were worthy ideas to be sure; support for income-based loan repayment or MOOC initiatives like those run at Southern New Hampshire University. But the core of President Obama’s propositions revolve around the creation of a Department of Education scorecard that will evaluate colleges on a variety of criteria and metrics. Federal subsidies and the availability of Pell grants and Stamford loans will be awarded on the basis of an institution’s performance on the DoE scorecard. In my mind, the Administration is doubling down on a failed strategy.

I would first question the veracity of the proposed federal scorecard. In his speech on Wednesday the President readily acknowledged that such peer evaluations already exist, citing US News and World Report by name. He is correct in asserting that colleges around the country look for ways to cheat these surveys, but on what basis is an Education Department study impervious to such shenanigans? Surely established collegiate interests will lobby the Education Secretary aggressively to shape the scorecard along parameters they find desirable. If anything, government is far more susceptible to undue outside influence than a private sector equivalent, whose success and prestige depends largely on their objectivity, where government is unburdened of such concerns. It’s is also widely agreed that the scorecard should repeal a federal ban on the collection of student level college data, as was proposed by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) in the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act.” A repeal of this wrong-headed ban would allow far better data analysis of programs and should be sought by the President and Secretary Duncan.

The veracity of the criteria used by the scorecard is also suspect. It includes measures such as “social mobility” or “share of students with Pell grants.” Here the President is playing at social conscientiousness, arguing that institutions more accessible to the disadvantaged or more engaged with the community are inherently more virtuous than others, thus they (and their students) are more deserving of federal aid. Normatively, I have no problem with that sentiment, but it’s unclear how social conscientiousness is in any way related to the quality of an education. If we should be awarding federal aid at all, it should purely be on the basis of quality, and not on the basis of a metaphysical virtue-ethic, laudable though it may be. In other words, Canisius isn’t deserving of more federal aid than UB (or some such similar institution) just because the Jesuits dig social justice.

What is further disappointing is that the President failed to seriously address the accreditation process in a serious way, a formative and substantial issue of such consequence that reform packages that fail to address it cannot be called “reform” at all. Consensus is universal that the quality of higher education has declined in the past thirty years, a fact which itself demands reevaluation of an accrediting regime that “hinders innovation, creates an inflexible college experience for students, and results in courses that are of questionable academic value” according to researchers Stuart Butler and Lindsey Burke. Accreditation and federal subsidies should be divorced by policy makers, allowing for reputable schools to qualify coursework and skill sets in new and unique ways. Coupling federal aid to the new scorecard traps entities in a failed system.

Congress should also reexamine the merit of any subsidies and student loans for college education. As a rule, I’m generally against subsidies of any kind because they create perverse economic arrangements bereft of utilitarian value. Because subsidies are dependent entirely on the whims of legislators, reductions in aid are always demonstrative of the folly of business and finance arrangements that aren’t organically driven by markets; it ends in skyrocketing cost, bankruptcy, and general market chaos, all of which is to the detriment of consumers. Additionally, as I mentioned in a similar column in 2011, the introduction of federal aid induces an academic arms race between competing institutions and inevitably leads to burgeoning operating budgets. Bigger budgets means more expenditure which necessitates new revenues, which are often sought in the form of tuition increases. The Reader’s Digest version? Surprise! Government’s the problem.

Soaring tuition costs aren’t just a problem for students. At this moment student loan debt is securitized and spread across the financial system in a manner totally similar to the subprime mortgages that wrought havoc on Wall Street in 2008. Reform is desperately needed to avert an economic catastrophe that would be to the disbenefit of all Americans when this bubble inevitably pops. College students don’t have a presence in Washington. There’s no one to lobby for us. We’re not an important constituency to anyone. So write letters. Call your Congressman. This matters.

 

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