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October 02, 2012 10:00 AM How Arne Duncan Might Fix Tuition

By Daniel Luzer

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has indicated that he plans to stay on for another term if President Barack Obama is reelected. According to an article by Fawn Johnson in the National Journal:

“I am staying, unless the president gets sick of me,” Duncan said after speaking at a K-12 Education Forum sponsored by the Hamilton Project. That’s unlikely to happen, considering that Obama and Duncan both cut their teeth on politics in Chicago and have a strong personal relationship.

If Duncan stays in office he indicates that he’s interested in addressing college tuition, though exactly how remains unclear. According to the piece:

It should come as no surprise that a second Obama administration would put a priority on taming sky-high college tuition. Obama’s pledge to tackle college costs has been a big applause line on the campaign trail. He often holds rallies at college campuses, and earlier this year found a message that resonated with students when he pressed Congress to act to keep student-loan interest rate from rising.
When it comes to college tuitions, the Education Department is likely to function as [a] bully [pulpit] of sorts, praising states and universities that make efforts to freeze (or even lower) tuitions and shaming those that keep raising the price. Duncan told the forum that the best tool the White House can use in pressing its policy agenda is “shining a light” on the best practices. But the Education Department’s websites showing the costs of college also will continue to highlight some of the worst deals for college.

The trouble with this is that the Department of Education is actually really bad at highlighting best practices.

The Department maintains, for instance, the What Works Clearinghouse, an office that exists to “provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions.” WWC helpfully reviews education research, summarizes it, and then lets interested parties know what’s going on in education research. What’s astonishing about this office, when looking at the actual studies it has available, is how common the result is something like “The study reported no statistically significant differences between elementary and middle schools [enacting the reform studied] and comparison schools.” Another common conclusion is “No studies of [the program] meet What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) evidence standards.”

You can’t highlight best practices if you can’t reliably figure out what they are.

Another, perhaps more effective tool to reduce college costs might be to exert influence through the use of federal grants and loans that are so crucial to college finances.

This is what President Obama proposed earlier in the year. This might work better. Focusing on “best practices” would likely lead the department to inappropriately focus on fad ideas like the three year bachelor’s degree and unproven, risky projects like online courses.

Some of those ideas might prove effective but there many, many different ways colleges (and college students can keep costs down. Using federal education money might be an elegant way to make that happen. The department can restrict its grants and loans to colleges that don’t raise net costs. How they accomplish that isn’t up to the Department of Education; that’s the college’s decision. If they have to they’ll find a way.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • GTOS on October 02, 2012 6:16 PM:

    To be honest, it's a little disappointing that talk of higher education has been pushed to the back burners for this election. Arne Duncan wants to assure voters that something will be done if Obama gets reelected but no one has really come up with a solid plan. He did, however, write today that "People also know that college is no longer a luxury for the fewóbut essential for the many." His emphasis, as is ours, is on making higher education more accessible to those who want it.

    But "How" will always be the key question.