Political Animal


January 28, 2012 11:15 AM Obama’s College Cost/Value Initiative: Battle Lines Form

By Ed Kilgore

It didn’t get maximum attention from non-specialty political media, who are transfixed by the GOP nomination death match, and who also tend to view every word uttered by Barack Obama as little more than campaign fodder. But the president’s speech on higher ed costs and “value” in Michigan yesterday, which filled out some of his best-received lines in the SOTU address, is already getting some reaction from the people most unlikely to favor it: the higher-ed lobby and congressional Republicans.

At the New York Times, Tamar Lewin summed up the slowly rousing opposition to Obama’s proposals:

“The answer is not going to come from more federal controls on colleges or states, or by telling families to judge the value of an education by the amount young graduates earn in the first few years after they graduate,” said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
He warned of unintended consequences: If colleges are forced to cut corners, educational quality could decline.
In Congress, reaction to the plan seemed to divide along party lines.
“The president is saying that people can’t afford to go to college anymore, and that just simply is not true,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who is chairwoman of the House Higher Education subcommittee. “Tuition is too high at most schools, but it isn’t the job of the federal government to punish those schools. It’s very arbitrary, and the president sounds like a dictator.”

At TNR, Education Sector’s Kevin Carey cut to the chase:

On Tuesday night this past week, alarm bells suddenly began ringing at 1 Dupont Circle, the Washington, DC headquarters of the powerful higher education lobby. The trigger was the surprise ultimatum that President Obama leveled in his State of the Union address. “We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition,” he said. “We’ll run out of money.” States needed to stop slashing college budgets, he noted, but colleges also had work to do. “So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” A White House policy blueprint released the same day was more specific. “The President is proposing to shift some Federal aid away from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down and provide good value.”

Carey went on to note that the new initiative represents a big shift in the administration’s higher ed focus, from abuses associated with for-profit schools to the public and private non-profit sectors, which were a lot happier with the earlier approach.

The presumed beneficiaries of the new departure, students and their parents, will be slower to mobilize. And it’s important to remember that the reaction will vary considerably according to location. Out here in California, where tuition rates for public four-year colleges rose by an average of 21% (and for two-year colleges, 37%) in the last year, amidst widespread alarms about enrollment restrictions, cancelled course offerings, faculty pay cuts and crumbling physical infrastructure, it’s likely the president will find some willing listeners. Elsewhere, he may have to cut through all the noise.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • jjm on January 28, 2012 11:35 AM:

    Best idea I've heard on this came from the Associated Students at the University of California at Riverside. Tuition is free, but you will owe 5% of what you earn for 15 years after graduation.

    Incentive for the university to do better on behalf of their students, and to educate them to qualify them for the best (and highest paying) jobs.

  • James on January 28, 2012 11:45 AM:

    Virginia Foxx, certified nutjob:

    "The same woman who voted against aid for Hurricane Katrina victims and against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act; the same woman who claimed that Matthew Shepard's murder wasn't a hate crime, going so far as to call it a 'hoax,' planted herself squarely in the realm of Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada. During the debate, Foxx called for zero federal funding for education, meaning we could kiss Pell Grants, student loans, and school lunch programs goodbye. (But, then again, she's already voted against the lunch program.)

    She called for an across-the-board 5% cut in the entire federal budget, including Social Security and Medicare, apparently with no regard for seniors and children in her district. Perhaps predictably, she praised the Citizens United ruling allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections, anonymously no less. And the icing on the cake came when she suggested that unemployment benefits make people lazy"

    according to Alan Colmes.

    So yeah, if she's agin' it, it must be good.

  • DAY on January 28, 2012 11:49 AM:

    I assume the lengthy Foxx quotes are from her campaign for re-election speech.
    I must also assume she will once again win in a landslide. . .

  • hells littlest angel on January 28, 2012 11:52 AM:

    Virginia Foxx is chairwoman of the House Higher Education subcommittee? Huh. A little research shows she's got a PhD, but I had a her pegged as a high school dropout.

    Still, I can feel some sympathy for the (non-profit) institutions. Educating a nation of cheapskates (when it comes to ponying up for the general welfare)and dumbfucks can't be easy

  • Alli on January 28, 2012 11:54 AM:

    AHEM!! Calling Occupy Wall Street - A lot of you have been complaining about rising tuition so I would think they would be all over this. Pretty sure that they will stay silent on the proposal until Obama "caves" on something and they will get riled up again and call him a sell out.

    Let's see if I'm wrong because I would like to be.

  • TR on January 28, 2012 11:55 AM:

    Virginia Foxx is the gift that keeps on giving. Batshit crazy, right down to her little crossed eyes.

    Dems should use clips of her in all their campaign videos. "Here's your modern Republican Party -- it's just like your insane great aunt who sends you email chains about water flouridation."

  • NJProf on January 28, 2012 12:00 PM:

    "Out here in California, where tuition rates for public four-year colleges rose by an average of 21% (and for two-year colleges, 37%) in the last year, amidst widespread alarms about enrollment restrictions, cancelled course offerings, faculty pay cuts and crumbling physical infrastructure, it’s likely the president will find some willing listeners."

    California's issues seem likely related to state budget cuts. I don't see how the issues of enrollment restrictions, cancelled courses, faculty pay cuts, and crumbling infrastructure can be addressed by diminishing resources through budget cuts. State aid will need to increase, programs will need to be cut, or tuition will need to increase. Voters can decide on which avenues they wish to take, but you can't improve a product by reducing resources.

    More broadly, there seems to be an assumption that quality education is inexpensive. My experience is that this assertion is false. People can decide to make education more efficient by consistently having 1,000 student classes (or hey, have Intro Chemistry taught to 10,000 students in the basketball arena) or by poorly executed on-line courses, but the quality of the educational experience will be severely diminished. On-line courses do have an advantage of requiring much less bricks and mortar. However, creating and maintaining an effective learning environment on-line is more labor intensive, as is instituting effective pedagogies (sitting and listening to a lecture is a terrible way to learn for most people). Thus, I am not quite convinced on-line will be a panacea for education costs in the long run.

    The president stressed looking at value in his speech, and this direction definitely strikes me as a sound policy, depending on how much time and effort we as a country are willing to assess value. Higher Ed standardized exams and average salary of graduates are seductively easy measures, but in the end poor measures. Quality assessment is time consuming and expensive. Is the citizenry willing to recognize the cost of assessment for the determination of value? My recent reading on the subject is that people on the left and the right seem only concerned with how cheaply to get a credential, and they do not actually value the education the credential is supposed to represent.

  • Texas Aggie on January 28, 2012 12:00 PM:

    “The president is saying that people can’t afford to go to college anymore, and that just simply is not true,” said Representative Virginia Foxx... “Tuition is too high at most schools, "

    Lady, you can't have it both ways! Either it is true that people can't afford to go to college anymore, or tuition is not too high at most schools.

    That tuitions have risen beyond what all but the 1% can afford is so blatantly true that it isn't open for discussion. And if you are going to argue that it isn't the place of the president to address the problem, then who do you think should be doing it? Despite the fact that you are one of those nutjobs who advocate for anarchy with no functioning government, the purpose of government is to "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Given our society, you can't insure domestic tranquility, establish Justice or promote the general Welfare without having an educated populace. Even Thomas Jefferson was aware of that even in his time, and therefore it most assuredly IS the part of government to see to it that people can get an education.

  • lou on January 28, 2012 12:13 PM:

    Like with health care, rising college costs are out of control. And with a shrinking or slowly growing pie, colleges have to put on the breaks and realize that the middle class has reached a limit on just how many interest groups (and elites in competing interest groups) they can sustain with its stagnant income.

    One of the biggest factors fueling rising college costs is the cost of pensions for current employees and retirees. Funding pensions is taking ALL of the growth in some university budgets.

    Rock, meet hard place.

  • chi res on January 28, 2012 12:35 PM:

    Kilgore: The presumed beneficiaries of the new departure, students and their parents, will be slower to mobilize.

    Alli: AHEM!! Calling Occupy Wall Street

    Agree completely, Alli.

    We could try this: "Mic check! (MIC CHECK!!) Mic check! (MIC CHECK!!)"

    Maybe now they'll listen...

  • Mimikatz on January 28, 2012 12:36 PM:

    What has caused college tuition to go up so much? A combination of shrinking taxpayer support and rising cost at colleges and Universities. But what are those costs? A study of Harvard showed that they took in much more money but did not educate more undergrads. Instead lots of money went for fancy institutes for this and that, lots of research facilities, fancy faculty lounges and higher salaries for everyone but the support staff.

    Here in California salaries and perks for administrators have gone through the roof, a scandal in some cases, faculty salaries have also risen, and new facilities keep being built. But enrollment is down or held steady. There needs to be research, but teaching needs to be emphasized too. Obama is right that increasing federal aid just makes costs keep rising. Higher ed has a lot in common with health care, and in both cases the key to controlling costs is putting curbs on provider compensation and doing more effectiveness research.

  • JackD on January 28, 2012 12:48 PM:

    As in medicine, the answer in education to rising costs is holding down compensation and benefits for providers. Sure, professors will leave to find better pay at other institutions but eventually institutions in general will not have the resources to meet the professorial demands and the professors will settle, as have employees in many other fields, for what is available. Holding back federal subsidization of universities and colleges is probably the most effective method of getting their attention.

  • c u n d gulag on January 28, 2012 12:55 PM:

    Marist, the college that I graduated from over th... thi... thir... thirty years ago(GACK!!! I'M OLD!!!), has done a ton of new building. The campus is easily twice its size when I went there, and probably closer to three.

    All of those buildings are capital investments, which are allowed to depreciate.

    What they haven't done is increase the salary of Professors much.

    When I went to Marist, it was a blue-collar college, and most of us were the first in our families to go to college.
    Now, you can tell who the Professors are by the cars. The student all drive fancy, expensive new ones, and the junkers belong to their teachers.
    Oh, and the administrators all have nice, expensive new ones, too.

  • NJProf on January 28, 2012 1:19 PM:

    Mimikatz makes several points. I can address a few at least somewhat, from the perspective of a small college.

    Research: Thank you for recognizing the importance of research at universities! It sometimes gets lost that the mission of universities is the creation of knowledge as well as its dissemination. You will also find no argument from me about the importance of teaching either, that is why I sought and took a job at an institution dedicated to excellent teaching of undergraduates. However, more/better teaching does not mean lower costs. Do you want faculty members extraordinary at both? They are more rare and therefore expensive to recruit. Smaller colleges which emphasize teaching, both private and public, tend to be more expensive than larger universities which allow their student to get thrown into giant lecture halls.

    Salaries: My recent reading is that professor salaries are substantially outpacing salaries in other fields. Administrator salaries may be going up, but the increasing number of administrators is a bigger cost issue. Staff and adjunct faculty are being hosed, and this treatment is not sustainable. Again, however, cost savings will not come from treating staff and adjuncts as they deserve.

    Facilities: Here is a major cost driver, along with increased administrators. Why do colleges and universities spend so much in these areas? My impression from inside is that colleges and universities are in massive competition with each other for top students and faculty. Recruiting necessitates beautiful facilities (dorms, classrooms, labs, etc.) to just keep pace. This certainly includes faculty research spaces, but I have seen nothing approaching a swanky faculty lounge at my school! More administrators are needed in recruiting to analyze reams of data on why students choose a particular school and to plan and execute a school's recruiting. I truly believe simpler facilities (particularly dorms) and fewer administrators could reduce costs. However, the institution would need to be very confident the lower cost they offer would be more appealing to students than the greater amenities and targeted marketing offered by other institutions.

    Effectiveness research: Yes! This is necessary, and long term will save money. However, in the short term it is a cost. Also, in education, effectiveness and efficiency are generally not equivalent. What happens if more expensive modes of teaching are also more effective?

    So what else is driving increased costs? Health care and energy costs are certainly issues. They represent non-trivial percentage of budgets and are increasing much faster than inflation. As non-profits, colleges and universities don't have buffer or reserve other than tuition. Could endowments be used for such a purpose? I think yes, but good luck getting a Board of Trustees to take that leap of faith.

    Reducing provider compensation by fiat is certainly an action that can be taken. However, I think the product would degrade. That is a choice the country seems to feel it needs to make.

  • cmdicely on January 28, 2012 1:56 PM:

    What has caused college tuition to go up so much?

    For California public colleges & universities that Ed points to, principally cuts in state subsidies resulting from the economic collapse.

    I'm not sure how the President's proposal to punish institutions that raise tuition by cutting student aid available at those institutions will do anything to address that problem.

  • golack on January 28, 2012 2:01 PM:

    NJProf raises valid points. Growth in administration costs and top level administrators is out of hand at most places. Maintaining facilities is another issue. It's far easier to raise money to build a new building-that you can put a name on-than it is to maintain, let alone upgrade, an old building. Combine that with all the new top level administrators trying to protect their own pot of money, you can end up losing $10K in man-hours deciding who pays the $1K to fix the doors. That's not even taking into account the lost time of the teachers/students/researchers. Unfortunately it's very difficult to break the penny-wise pound foolish mentality in institutions, so things may get worse before they get better for universities.

  • emjayay on January 28, 2012 2:27 PM:

    And of course incarcerating Americans at a rate that is multiples of what we used to do and multiples of what any similar country does, leaves less of the pie for anything else, including education.

  • CJ on January 28, 2012 2:38 PM:

    I always remember that line from Good Will Hunting: "See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in fifty years you're gunna start doing some thinkin' on your own, and you're gunna' come up with the fact that...you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin' education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library."

    Philosophers Damon and Affleck had a point. I'm currently taking a class online, and the institution provides a website through which we can congregate, and a a very educated professor to provide reading assignments, deadlines, and grades. There's a great deal of value in that. Unfortunately, that value isn't as much as they charge for the tuition. And while we're on the subject, the textbooks are overpriced too.

  • pontormo on January 28, 2012 2:52 PM:

    Having spent thirty five years teaching at various colleges and universities, the one across the board consistancy was that administrators didn’t give a hoot for the quality of education or care about the quality of faculty.
    As I watched tuitions rise at every institution in which I taught, I saw faculties shrink and administrations expand.
    What became a trend as well was that inexperienced and unqualified administrators intruded into what would happen in classrooms with increased vehemance.
    Students are a transient population. By the time they realize that they have been had-they move on and a fresh and innocent student population moves in.

  • CJ on January 28, 2012 3:12 PM:

    As I watched tuitions rise at every institution in which I taught, I saw faculties shrink and administrations expand. What became a trend as well was that inexperienced and unqualified administrators intruded into what would happen in classrooms with increased vehemence.

    That has been my impression.

    A friend is a full professor at the University of Georgia. He once told me that he wished the administration would stop renovating administration buildings for no apparent reason, but instead, deliver a bus full of new professors at the beginning of the next semester.

  • Miscellanneous on January 28, 2012 5:07 PM:

    Speaking from experience, I can tell you that professorial salaries ARE NOT going up. I am far from alone among my colleagues across the country in not having had any raise of any kind in 5 years and, instead, having had furloughs (ie, pay cuts by another name).

    The average state support for state institutions has decreased in the last 30 years from about 60% of school operating budgets to about 20% -- and, now, in states like California, much less. (The College Board publishes a yearly report on tuition and college expenses, available on their website.)

    This is why schools like Madison talk about becoming private and why they seek so many out-of-state students, who pay out-of-state tuition.

    To make up for those reduced revenues from the states, schools work to increase fundraising, seek new research dollars (often to the detriment of undergraduate education), and raise tuition. They have no other options.

    So, as another commenter above noted, we get what we pay for. If you want huge classes or online classes that consist of a reading and then a quiz, just let's keep going the way we are.

  • CJ on January 28, 2012 5:36 PM:

    "So, as another commenter above noted, we get what we pay for. If you want huge classes or online classes that consist of a reading and then a quiz, just let's keep going the way we are."

    I don't know if you were referring to my comment, but I didn't mean to imply that an online education is less valuable than an onsite education. Nor is an online education as simple as assigning a reading and giving a quiz (online courses have scheduled real time classes too). I was just pointing out that the institution doesn't need a parking lot, a bus, a classroom, projector, a library, or a quad of any kind in order to provide an online education. Despite such obvious savings, they're not being passed onto the consumer.

  • Miscellanneous on January 28, 2012 6:21 PM:

    No, CJ, wasn't referencing you. But, still:

    I too see some mighty fine online classes. There are also some good hybrid classes (mixed face-to-face and online).

    The cheapest online classes, however, are those set up around a set of readings and quizzes, and there are plenty of those because that's where schools can make the most money: once a teacher sets up such a class, he never need appear again except to take a look at the grades automatically generated from the quizzes. Who cares who many students take such a class? Just keep signing them up!

    BUT: To argue that schools reap huge infrastructure savings from online classes isn't correct. Sure, students who take only online classes do not use busses or parking lots. But they most certainly do use the library, either through being assigned readings that the library scans and stores on reserve or through the journals to which the library buys access; the library might also very well be the place where the teacher of the online class learned how to use the online software. And the cost of servers, course management software, electricity, student support, and teacher education are not cheap.

    To imply, then, that online education is always cheaper than a face-to-face education is simply not correct.

  • Doug on January 28, 2012 7:58 PM:

    It appears to me that much depends on whether one is going to college to actually learn something or just to get a degree. If it's the former, "beautiful" facilities aren't required, for the latter, they're a must.
    I think that summarizes it best, if a bit too simply...

  • PEA on January 28, 2012 8:28 PM:

    Many good points. Agree salary increases are in coll admin, not faculty or staff. Administrators always seem to have offices in the new bldgs w/ new furniture, etc while faculty have offices furnished in authentic "mid-century modern" (i.e. leftovers from the 1950's-60's, mismatched, mustard and olive colored metal desks, orange and brown fabric chairs). Also, note that faculty salaries vary WIDELY from community colleges to state colleges and state universities, and from one dept to another (no surprise the business schools, law schools, med school salaries are far higher than in education, social sciences, hard sciences/math, etc). Community college faculty and administrators here tend to earn more than expected. Faculty who do research are usually paid 1-2 months' salary from their fed or state grants; grad students and post docs are also paid from those grants. Also, many research scientists in the life sciences (especially the women scientists) are on soft money from NIH, rather than having regular faculty jobs, so as fed $ dries up, we have fewer scientists, post docs, and grad students doing basic research in the life sciences particularly, but also in other science fields.
    It's important to consider the MULTIPLE purposes of colleges and universities when considering what they "should" cost, what states and feds want to pay for, what are desirable outcomes of "quality" education: to prepare people for work; to educate people beyond just getting a job (remember the liberal arts?); continuing ed for adults; to do research in many many fields; to contribute to the community in many ways (summer programs and internships for K-12 teachers and students; collaborative programs with local schools; ongoing cultural programs; etc etc). I agree it's criminal for technical schools to charge $40,000 for 18 mos of education (e.g. in "culinary arts" or whatever) but leave their students unable to get jobs. But, merely counting what graduates make in their first few jobs after school is a seriously limited indicator of college quality and value.

  • The Oracle on January 28, 2012 10:24 PM:

    Our nation needs a national G.I. Bill for all of our nation's children.

    Hey, our nation's children have been caught in the middle of a right-wing spawned Culture War for over thirty years, a Culture War against America declared by the late Jerry Falwell in 1979, a Culture War that has led to endless assaults on the future of our nation's children. So, why not a G.I. Bill for them?

    Oh right, just like the Republicans were vehemently against the implementation of the G.I. Bill after World War II, today they don't want our government to help anyone but the fat cat backers of the Republican Party, screw the children, screw our nation's educational system, screw our democracy, screw our nation's future (which IS our children, and the better educated, the better our nation's future). Why do Republicans hate America so much?

  • bob h on January 29, 2012 7:17 AM:

    We mustn't question the right of college Presidents and deans to command salaries multiples of what the US President makes.