Obama’s Higher Education plan

I realized I probably ought to say something at least modestly intelligent about this, but, I’m not sure I have any particular good insight.  Thus, my favorite insights/thoughts from others.

1) Best basic summary award goes to Chait (a couple long excerpts to start, but skip and stick with me if you already know the details):

President Obama’s higher-education speech today marks a genuinely significant turn in long-term policy agenda. Democrats’ approach to college policy has always focused on increasing access by subsidizing tuition, and this has defined the partisan fault line: Democrats want to jack up subsidies that make college affordable for non-rich students, while Republicans want to spend less.

Obama argues that subsidization alone is not working — the rise of college tuition places a constant, unsustainable pressure on financial aid in order to keep pace. What’s more, the system largely shovels money out the door with little regard for ensuring that college students receive real value for their tuition dollars. Obama’s policy turn is to place his party behind a dual agenda of college affordability, including both subsidies to students and a coordinated agenda designed to increase the value of a college education.

Colleges, and especially elite colleges, pay very little attention to holding down costs. (Indeed, the rankings of the best colleges use higher spending as one of the metrics, so an administrator who cuts the budget risks seeing his school fall down the prestige rankings and start attracting less competitive students.) Obama’s basic goal is to change the culture of higher education by prodding it from every direction. The government would give students more options in the schools available to them and for getting the best terms on their loans — low-income students, in particular, have far less information and make far worse decisions about applying to and paying for college. The federal government would encourage more innovation by colleges themselves, to prod them into finding more cost-effective models. Ideally, these reforms would feed into each other, with colleges facing pressure from better-informed consumers and competition from peers.

2) Also, a smart column from Yglesias:

The fundamental problem of higher education is that the public rates schools mostly based on inputs. The most important input in the conventional thinking about colleges is the students themselves. A good college is essentially a college that’s hard to get into. That’s why Harvard and Yale are “better” than Georgetown and NYU, why UCLA is “better” than UNLV, and why the selective schools that dominate the media conversation as a whole are better than the nonselective schools that serve the bulk of low-income students. Competition among schools is dominated by the quest to attract better applicants by spending money on other inputs. That means recruiting star faculty, building nicer dorms, spending financial aid money on students from prosperous families, and more. There’s ample evidence that the more selective schools really do lead to better student outcomes on the whole. But this is an extremely crude proxy, and it creates a dynamic where the incentives post to ever-rising spending by schools.

This means competition drives an upward cycle of spending. The alternative approach would be to try to define a good school as one where tuition is low relative to graduates’ earnings, or one where the graduation rate is higher than the demographics of the student body would suggest. Of course, if it were easy to devise an outcomes-based way of evaluating colleges, it would have happened already. And historically, the higher education lobby has fought viciously against even minimal disclosure of basic measures of performance. Tying public funding to good performance would be hugely controversial and would require the agreement of a Republican Congress that’s rarely been eager to cooperate with the administration.

3) A college professor FB friend linked to the NYT summary and highlighted this part:

shows a plan to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend.

And, I have to agree that earnings strikes me as a highly problematic indicator.  I think a far better indicator is simply default rate.  Are your students earning enough money to pay off their loans?  Okay, good.  Let’s not rate Harvard higher simply because more of their graduates go into hedge funds and investment banking.

4) In a separate post, Yglesias also makes the important point that when thinking about college costs, it is important to consider the total cost, i.e., financial aid, state subsidies, and student costs, not just what students pay:

If the (net) price is being held down by Pell Grants then the cost is being shifted off the backs of low-income students and onto the shoulders of taxpayers. That’s a fine idea if you ask me, but it’s still true that shifting costs is different from reducing them. If the cost of providing a college education hadn’t risen so much we could have used those tax dollars for something else like preschool or invading Syria or highway repairs.

5) Kevin Drum points out that the proposed metric isn’t all that far from what Washington Monthly has already been doing.  Essentially a “bang for your buck” measure for college.  But one that assures the college is also serving low-income students.  Best part of this metric, NC college come out great, with UNC, Appalachian State, and NC State rounding out the top 10.

That said, as to Yglesias’ point, insofar as this simply represents greater subsidy from NC taxpayers and not necessarily holding overall costs down, we should encourage a better metric that considers total costs.

6) And lastly, if you are still reading, I do have my own thoughts.  I love it.  I’m sure it’s not perfect (e.g., earnings) and that there may be stuff as a college professor I end up thinking is not such a great idea, but it follows the overall Obama approach of simply saying: here’s the problem, what are the smart policy solutions to help address the underlying issues.  Republicans have every reason to get on board because it should ultimately create a better educated public and save the taxpayers a ton of money.  But I fear their deranged Obama hatred will prevent that from actually happening.  A damn shame, and I expect another coming illustration of utter disdain for meaningful policy analysis from this on the right of America’s political spectrum.

6a) Quick check of right-wing sites shows that conservatives don’t even apparently care about the issue of college affordability and accountability.  Though, maybe it takes a few days to drum up the hatred.  At least the National Review had a piece pointing out that Krauthammer hates this as just more government regulation.  Can’t say I didn’t predict this a paragraph ago.

Photo of the day

From an In Focus gallery on an California wildfire earlier this month.  I find night-time fire photos particularly compelling:

The Silver Fire spreads in the early morning hours near Banning, on August 8, 2013. (Reuters/David McNew)


Map of the day (if politics were fair edition)

Via Wonkblog, here’s the US with 50 states of equal-sized population:

Back to the 1800’s in NC

You may recall that back in the 19th century, much of bureaucracy was run by the “spoils system.”  That is, to the victor go the spoils.  Bureaucrats were appointed and kept their jobs not because they actually knew what they were doing, but because they were connected and supported the right political party.   As I put it to my Intro classes, by the late 19th century, Americans figured out that government by sycophants is no run to run a government.  The result was widespread civil service reform and a bureaucracy largely staffed by competent people who have earned their position on merit.  It’s not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than the old system.  At the top level, we still have political appointees, which seems sensible enough– a president/governor should be able to set the general policy direction for part of the executive branch.  But under that, we expect competent civil servants.

Alas, here in NC we’re heading back to the 19th century.  From the N&O:

Dr. Aldona Wos, state Health and Human Services secretary, sent email to some agency staff yesterday telling them they’re going to become “at will” employees, meaning they will no longer protected under the state Personnel Act.

The Republican legislature gave GOP Gov. Pat McCrory about 1,500 more patronage positions than Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, had.

It is not known how many at DHHS received the email and what positions they hold. The News & Observer has asked for the information.

“We are working to fulfill your public records request,” said DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz.

Update: McCrory’s office sent a letter to the state Human Resources office in June with a list of 389 DHHS positions he exempted from the state Personnel Act.

This is truly appalling.  There is simply no rational justification for this.  Oh, I’m sure we’ll hear various lies about the need to fire lazy, seat-warming bureaucrats.  But there are procedures for that, i.e., the State Personnel Act.  What this means is that nearly 400 people at the state agency tasked with administering health policy in this state can now be hired/fired for their politics instead of their competence.  Truly, a gargantuan step back in how to run a government.  Pathetic.

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