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August 2013

Obama's Whack-a-Mole Approach to Higher Ed

Yesterday, in the middle of a packed auditorium at SUNY's Binghamton University, President Obama laid out a number of proposals aimed at reforming the U.S. system of higher education.

You'd be forgiven for a sense of déja vu, as the ideas Obama discussed have been brought up before, notably in his 2012 State of the Union Address (which I covered here). The difference this time is that the Department of Education has had another year and a half to flesh out the details.

The Administration has lumped together these otherwise scattershot reforms into three categories:

Pay Colleges and Students for Performance

  • Tie financial aid to college performance, starting with publishing new college ratings before the 2015 school year.
  • Challenge states to fund public colleges based on performance.
  • Hold students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree.

Promoting Innovation and Competition

  • Challenge colleges to offer students a greater range of affordable, high-quality options than they do today.
  • Give consumers clear, transparent information on college performance to help them make the decisions that work best for them.
  • Encourage innovation by stripping away unnecessary regulations.

Ensuring that Student Debt Remains Affordable

  • Help ensure borrowers can afford their federal student loan debt by allowing all borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income.
  • Reach out to struggling borrowers to ensure that they are aware of the flexible options available to help them to repay their debt.

Please, I encourage you to take a look at their expanded bullet points to get a better idea of what they mean.

Rather than go point-by-point, I'd like to weave some of these proposals into a bigger picture.

Pay-for-performance has a long history in American K-12 education — a history riddled with failure and unintended consequences. First students were evaluated by test scores, then schools were evaluated by their students' test scores, and now teachers are evaluated by their students' test scores. The results have been disastrous: students' lives are dominated by test prep, budget-crunched schools cut arts and music programs that aren't included in standardized tests, and teachers are forced to throw pedagogy out the window because their very livelihood is based on their students' scores (often competing with their colleagues for job security and pay raises). And now it's heading to higher ed.

The obsession with quantification is a shackle generously gifted to us by titans of finance and industry, along with their allies in elective office. Just as employees should be measured by the quality of products they churn out, teachers and schools should be measured by quality of students they churn out. But students aren't products: an insight lost on economic elites, who can't seem to wrap their heads around the idea that even their own employees aren't expendable tools. Those teachers and schools who miss the mark on standardized tests are given the boot, to be replaced with charters or vouchers to private schools.

Quantification goes hand-in-hand with competition: once we've assigned everyone a number, why not force them to fight over scarce resources? That'll clearly improve everyone's performance!

The administration is vague on details about what criteria the ranking and funding will be based upon, but they throw out a few possibilities:

  • Access, such as percentage of students receiving Pell grants;
  • Affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and
  • Outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.

Okay, so judging from these three criteria, we can surmise that the White House wants universities that do well by poor students, keep cost to the student low, and send off lots of graduates who will then be successful in the real world.

Seems reasonable, right? In fact, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a significant number of university presidents or state legislators who would tell you that they disagree with that goal. Then again, Wal-Mart executives wouldn't disagree with wanting businesses to treat their employees well and support their local communities, either.

So where's the disconnect?

Much of it stems from how modern liberals think institutions work, and how government can influence those institutions to achieve popular goals. Because those who are making higher ed decisions are often those least affected by them, there is a perennial disconnect between what is done and what should be done. University administrators and trustees more interested in prestige than affordability will squander millions of dollars on monuments, buildings, and landscaping, all the while feeling bad about having to raise tuition, cut tenure-track positions, and outsource staff. "If only we had more money," they sigh.

All the problems that the President outlined are correct: from tuition, to student debt, to graduation rates. But his solutions, far from being game-changers, are the definition of what he said he wanted to avoid: "tinkering around the edges." They're all incomplete and indirect measures to nudge institutions in a certain direction. And as any health insurance or finance executive can attest, regulations were made to be avoided and rating systems were made to be gamed. ObamaCare mandated that most employers provide insurance to full-time employees. What do employers do? Cut employees' hours down just enough to avoid the requirement. Congress puts an end to checking account overdraft charges? Banks add new fees elsewhere.

So long as the underlying logic of the institutions remain the same, we'll continue to play whack-a-mole, expending untold amounts of time and energy to put half-measures into place that they'll find a way to avoid. No matter how well-constructed (which very much remains to be seen), a brand new Federal college ranking system will likely introduce just as many distorted outcomes and incentives as the justly-maligned U.S. News & World Report rankings, outcomes and incentives that will need to be addressed by yet another round of regulations and reforms.

Our public universities don't need money with strings attached to it, right now they just need money. The staggering reduction in funds to higher education on the part of state legislatures has to be reversed: divvying up the budgetary equivalent of tablescraps to competing institutions, like Obama's "Race to the Top" program, is a recipe for short-sighted, desperate policy changes. Students don't need more manageable debt, first they need less debt: make it dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Funding aside, that the government has to force institutions to do what reasonable people think should be done anyway suggests not a lack of carrots and sticks, but a deeper institutional dysfunction. Can we envision a bank that is designed with the fundamental goal of not shitting on its customers? Just go down the street to your local credit union. Can we envision a business intrinsically designed to keep worker safety and well-being a top priority? Just visit your nearest worker cooperative. Can we envision a university that's first and foremost responsive to the needs and interests of students and faculty? Absolutely, but it'll look different from just about everything we have, and these proposals won't get us there.

Here are some other analyses of President Obama's proposals you should take a look at:

 

NSPC Reportback: Our Struggles! Our Fight!

National Student Power Convergence

The 2nd Annual National Student Power Convergence was held in Madison, Wisconsin. We're inviting all NSPC participants to write their recaps, lessons learned, and critiques of the event — send a tweet to @forstudentpower if you'd like yours posted here!

Below is a reportback (+ photos) from Sara Fitouri, Denver-based organizer with COSPA, the Colorado Student Power Alliance.


National Student Power Convergence

“Our Struggles! Our Fight! Students of the world unite! We have only one solution! We must lead the revolution!”

From August 1st - 5th more than 300 youth from around the nation converged in Madison, Wisconsin for a weekend of radical thought, workshops including anti-oppression and direct action trainings, and reporting back on a year of work in their home states. Panels and trainings illuminated the school to prison pipeine that directs marginalized youth into prisons instead of college campuses, and student debt organizers highlighted the economic burden of paying for education that those who made it to campus would pay for most of their lives.

This particular chant started off the weekend. Lead by the youth arriving from New York City and New Jersey, it set a tone of urgency and political anger that embodied the spirit of the convergence and what would be the goal of the next few days. As members of the student movement, much of our success depends on our ability to join together in order to revolutionize the state of education.

It is unlikely that anyone present would disagree that student-led change is imperative for the betterment of our schools and, as education is the stepping stone to our greater community interaction, our world. Unfortunately, uniting a student movement is something less simple than leading a chant.

The convergence, overall, became a microcosm of the dynamics within the greater student organizing community (or at least the parts of the community with which I personally am familiar) Throughout the weekend, participants became caught up in many of the same dilemmas that our organizations face regularly. This is not particularly surprising. If we had figured out the correct way to unite together, engage democratically, develop a space that is anti-oppressive and build power to make positive change all at once, we would have already won. Like the greater struggle, just because we haven’t gotten it right yet is no reason to stop fighting. In fact, it is through the process that we grow as a movement, that we work off our rough edges and get closer to developing an organizing community that reflects the society we are trying to build. It was in those moments during which values clashed and decisions were challenged that I learned the most: from the organizers' ability to accept criticism, people's entitlement to space, or the ways in which we often unintentionally pigeonhole people whose religious or cultural values we end up unfairly conflating with conservative politics.

Despite its shortcomings, the National Student Power Convergence filled a needed space in the student movement and provided the opportunity to network with a wide and diverse range of students who are, despite our differences, committed to an important agenda. Because it is free to register and the organizers worked to subsidize travel, there were perspectives present that usually get omitted from the conversation. At the convergence, race was a regular part of the conversation, the word “revolution” could be used without provoking negative reactions, and the voices of students and youth dominated the conversation. Many youth who were new to that type of space opened themselves up to the community around them and the final day expressed their own personal transformations to the group.

A call for transparency and challenging authority

National Student Power Convergence

Even before arriving in Madison, people were curious about the organizing of the convergence. The steering committee didn't seem able to actually steer and the movement summer interns hired from around the country focused solely on recruitment. My connections with the organizers before the convergence illuminated a scene I too had found myself in many times before: a few people scrambling to complete everything, and in their rush, not cultivating the space to let other people in. It’s easy for me to condemn this leadership mistake, but then I stop to think of how often I have struggled to delegate tasks, made minor and major decisions that upon reflection should have come with group input, and also failed to update my base with crucial information. Sometimes through working with other people we notice what we ourselves need to work on.

I believe that the lack of transparency didn’t come from a lack of integrity, but rather from overwhelmed organizers.That being said, holding each other accountable is crucial for the integrity of the movement. During what was scheduled as a General Assembly in the programming, tensions escalated upon realization that the meeting wasn't structured like one. The identity caucuses had written resolutions of their grievances that they wanted acknowledged through the democratic process of a GA, and others were looking forward to a space equally shaped by participants, not the organizers. In a change of plans, the organizers announced that they thought the space would be better used as a time to reflect on the convergence experience rather than as an assembly. Unlike other spaces, where the organizers decision might be accepted with a few quiet grumbles, people began directly challenging the decision. In the end, a general assembly did not happen, but the learning experience, though not a part of the planned convergence, was essential. We can and should challenge authority.

Some of the most meaningful connections are made outside of "business hours"

National Student Power ConvergenceAlthough the workshops, caucus spaces, and trainings provided a solid framework for developing relationships among organizers, the most compelling and intimate conversations tended to happen outside of formally planned structures. And this makes sense. After all, the University of Wisconsin is on a lake. Let the skinny-dipping commence!

In all honesty, some of my best conversations were spent in the surprisingly comfortable waters of Lake Mendota. It was a space bereft of any rigid social expectations to perform as the well-trained, confident organizer. Instead, it was the kind of relaxed and open environment in which our vulnerabilities, personal narratives, and complex questions were given air to breathe and room to grow. Too often, social time is reduced to inebriated antics devoid of any meaningful impact. However, this was not the case at NSPC: we were able to take advantage of our free time by asking bold questions, laughing at our shared experiences, and feeling comfortable enough to share our own stories and what they mean to us as organizers.

In the end, if we cannot find unity in a general assembly, then perhaps we need to look to the lake. To the bar. To the informal sing-alongs of “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” over lunch.

I am excited to see how people integrate what they learned and who they met into another year of political activism. With a corporate world working to alienate and disempower us, we need more moments of unity to build off of and with each other. In all its imperfections, the NSPC did bring together a community.

The New Student Loan System: How Screwed Are We? [UPDATED]

"The word bipartisan means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out." — George Carlin

To great establishment fanfare, the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act has now passed both Houses of Congress, and should be signed by President Obama shortly. [UPDATE 1: President Obama has signed the bill.] This new law changes the previous regime of fixed interest rates and allows them to float — to a certain degree.

Now, the interest rate on your student loan will be set at whatever the 10-Year Treasury bill rate is, plus a fixed percentage. Here's the percentage breakdown, with the caps on how high the interest rate can get:

 Type of Loan Previous Rate New Rate Cap
Undergrad Stafford subsidized 3.4% (6.8% as of July 1) T-bill + 2.05% 8.25%
Undergrad Stafford unsubsidized 6.8% T-bill + 2.05% 8.25%
Grad Stafford 6.8% T-bill + 3.6% 9.5%
GradPLUS/Parent 7.9% T-bill + 4.6% 10.5%

You'll remember the great wailing and gnashing of teeth around the July 1 rate hike, particularly on the liberal/progressive side of the debate, when the 3.4% interest rate expired. It was a very similar to the wailing and gnashing of a year before, when the 3.4% rate was originally scheduled to expire. But because 2012 was an election year, we saw a very different outcome: both Obama and Romney came out in favor of extending the interest rate another year, and it passed both houses easily.

This year, without the pressures of a Presidential campaign, Congress let July 1 come and go without a fix. Given how malleable deadlines are with a legislative body that can pass laws with retroactive effect, as they did in this case, apocalyptic cut-off dates seem to have much more to do with public perception of lawmaking than with lawmaking itself.

Based on how low the T-bill rate is now, that means undergrads get a halfway decent deal this year: 3.86%, only slightly up from where it was before July 1st. However, there's a problem. The T-bill rate is not just low, it's historically, ludicrously low. The yearly average T-bill rate for the past two years has been so low that you'd have to go back to 1941 to find another that low. That means that the 3.86% rate will be gone very soon: according to rough CBO estimates, we could very likely see T-bill rates of 5.2% in 2017, which would bump up the interest rate of undergrad loans to a painful 7.4%.

While past results are no guarantee of future performance, it is the best benchmark we can go by. I've pulled together these stats, along with what the average student loan interest rate would have been over the past 20 and 30 years, had the new law been in effect then. The results aren't pretty (see the infographic below).

17 of the most reliably progressive and pro-student members of the Senate voted against the bill, along with 25 mostly progressive Democrats and 6 Republicans in the House. It makes one wonder why progressive student-oriented groups like Generation Progress (formerly Campus Progress) and Rock the Vote pushed so hard for the passage of a bill that 1) will make the student loan crisis worse, 2) will do nothing to help those straining under the $1.2 trillion in debt already out there, and 3) was hailed by Speaker Boehner as "almost identical" to what the House GOP wanted.

Perhaps it's because they're not democratically accountable to actual students? The United States Student Association's newly elected President, Sophia Zaman, has come out very publicly against it. [UPDATE 2: Kalwis Lo, Leg Director for USSA, co-penned a favorable statement about the bill's passing, in an apparent reversal of position. I imagine there's an interesting story behind this move.]

Some say that this is just a temporary stopgap, meant to help students now but will be fixed soon (some say as soon as this fall, when the Higher Education Act is up for renewal). Do we really need to remind these folks of the "pass it now, fix it later" slogan used to get progressives behind the Affordable Care Act? As Jon Walker put it:

Inertia is an overwhelming force in Washington. Things rarely get improved later even when politicians say improvement is needed. That is why it is so important to fight to get the design right to begin with, or we end of living with the design flaws for a very long time.

Student loan debt infographic