Better Citizens: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 4A of 8

Peter Wood

President Obama’s agenda for higher education includes using the leverage of the federal government to have colleges and universities redouble their efforts to cultivate progressive values among students. This is probably the least discussed of Obama’s higher-education goals, but it is central to his vision not just of the university but of the country at large.

Beginning with Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda in early February I said I would post a series examining the eight major components of his plans for higher education, and then try to put them together as a whole. In part one of the series, Supersizing, I reviewed the president’s dream of ushering in a gargantuan expansion of higher education. In part two, I looked at his proposed use of Price Controls. In part three, last week, College for All, I traced his evolving theme of sending all American high-school graduates to a least one year of formal postsecondary education.

In his speeches, Obama has generally emphasized the supposed economic benefits of a supersized, price-controlled, college-for-all federal initiative, but he also sees benefits beyond a better-prepared workforce. One of those extra benefits he hopes for is a large increase in the number of Americans attuned to his own progressive political values.

Because Obama rarely speaks about this aspect of higher education, to learn about it we have to pay attention to his actual initiatives. There are at least seven that bear directly on how higher education can be massaged into an instrument for producing citizens more attuned to progressive political values:

  • College students in his 2008 campaign
  • Direct lending
  • Civics education
  • Diversity
  • Loan forgiveness for public service
  • The Common Core State Standards
  • Public Allies

I bookended this list with developments that came before Obama’s election to the presidency. The other five are policy initiatives that come during his time in office. But I have space in this posting for only the first three, and will treat the last four in a follow-up.

College Students in the 2008 Campaign

In the fall semester of 2008, students in many colleges and universities were met with a highly unusual opportunity: they could volunteer to campaign for a presidential candidate and be awarded college credit for their efforts. Some of the participating colleges limited this to the Obama campaign. A few were bi-partisan, apparently as an afterthought. That’s because the forethought came entirely from the Obama campaign itself, which ran a national clearinghouse to help students who wanted to volunteer arrange to get academic credit for it at their home institutions.

I broke the story on this in an article posted to the National Association of Scholars’ Web site in September 2008, “College Credit for Campaign Volunteers,” and followed up with “About Face in Amherst” and “No Big Deal…But Many Small Ones.” The original article tracked an “Independent Study” course at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that was also open to students at Amherst College, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and Hampshire.  Within hours of my posting, UMass did an about-face and declared the course would not be for credit. My article took note of similar programs at other universities and the national coordination of this effort. A group called Swing Semester, whose 2008 Web page is still at this writing visible, for example, helped link students to campaigns to advance “progressive causes” in the 2008 election. Swing Semester described itself as “the nation’s first political immersion program” and made Swing Semester 2008:

an investment in the most important asset of the progressive movement – its people. In the short run, our participants will knock on hundreds of thousands of doors in swing states. Our greatest impact, however, will come from guiding young citizens and committed families through an experience that will challenge, deepen, and energize us all for a lifetime of civic engagement.

Take note of those last two words. “Civic engagement” has proven to be a key phrase in Obama’s higher-education policies.

The effort to draw college students into the Obama campaign was, of course, perfectly legitimate as a form of political participation. But the attempt to blend political activism with academic credit was outrageous—and a sign of the times that faculty members and academic administrators at many colleges and universities could not immediately sense that they were crossing a line.

Or several lines. Students at public universities were in effect using taxpayer subsidies to engage in partisan campaigning. Both public and private colleges were conflating political activism with disciplined intellectual inquiry. That they or their teachers couldn’t see how illegitimate this is was surely due to the incessant repetition of the idea that “everything is political” and there can be no bright line between what you learn from experience and what you learn in a college course. “Experiential” and “service learning” paved the way for this particular degradation of academic standards.

There were, however, political activists loudly cheering the change. Obama (2008) campaign advisor Peter Drier writing in The Nation extolled for-credit volunteer opportunities, such as the one at Obama’s alma mater, Occidental College, called Campaign Semester:

Instead of studying abroad, nineteen students are getting a full semester of course credit by spending ten weeks working full-time with a Senate or presidential campaign in eight battleground states and then, after election day, returning to the Los Angeles campus for a five-week reading and research seminar. Most of them signed up to work for Obama.

Will the Obama campaign try this tactic again in 2012? Student interest in his candidacy has clearly waned but that doesn’t mean that the logic of the situation has changed. If you believe that political campaigning deserves academic credit, why not?

I have no idea whether Obama personally approved of this convergence of campaigning and “studying” but he plainly didn’t disapprove of it. And it turned out to be a dress rehearsal for some of the policies he has expressly approved as president.

Direct Lending

The 1965 Higher Education Act created a system in which the federal government guaranteed loans made by private lenders to students to attend college. It was a rather risky business for lenders to loan to college students since they generally had no collateral. Students borrowed then, as today, on the prospect of future earnings, and quite often those earnings proving insufficient, the students defaulted. The federal guarantee changed the game. Lenders didn’t have to be nearly as prudent in picking out students who were good risks, and over time the subsidized student-loan industry became rife with the problems that arise from having a secure line to federal support. Default rates were high. Illegal collusion between universities and lenders was common. Loan consolidators figured out how to game the federal fee system to harvest hundreds of millions in excess subsidies. Politicians and lenders developed cozy relationships that surely were not in the public interest. The student-loan industry, like the housing industry before it, got in the business of monetizing loans by reselling them in bonds that mixed good and bad debt. Eventually the market turned skeptical of the value of these bonds and the lenders looked to the federal government for a bailout.

In the 1990s, the Department of Education began to experiment with a possible reform. It set up a trial system in which the Department of Education itself originated the loans to students attending a handful of colleges and universities. The system worked pretty well and gradually it was expanded. By 2010, we had a mixed system of federally subsidized student loans and “direct lending.” Then something remarkable happened. During the House-Senate reconciliation process for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—a higher-education provision was suddenly grafted into the bill. The measure abolished the old federally subsidized private-lending system and replaced it with a system in which Direct Lending is the only option. I wrote about this at the time in “Obama Care Meets Obama Ed” and “Obama Loans, Who Collects?

As I’ve indicated, there were ample reasons to be dissatisfied with the performance of the private lenders—not least that they were really cosseted clients of the federal government immune from important forms of market discipline. They did, however, have one important feature: they were interested in making a profit, not in dictating the content of academic programs.

The establishment of Direct Lending as the only option for students seeking federally supported loans concentrated an immense new power in the Department of Education. In practice, anything that a U.S. president or his Secretary of Education wants to impose on higher education now comes with the authority of the agency that decides not just institutional eligibility for federal student loans but actual disbursement of those loans.

Is this a difference that makes a difference? Consider Obama’s speech at the University of Michigan on January 27 in which he announced his plan to limit tuition increases by punishing those that increase their prices too quickly.

Civics Education

In 2010, the Department of Education appointed a thirteen-member National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. The task Force completed its work in December and the White House held a formal event to receive its report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. I wrote about this at the time in Civics Lessons.

A task force like this is typically created not to explore a topic de nova but to offer a semblance of independent confirmation for an idea or program that is known pretty clearly in advance. I don’t think the final report from the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, appointed by former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in 2006, had anything in it that occasioned surprise for Ms. Spellings. She sought a report that called for more assessment and accountability on the part of colleges and universities and that’s what the Commission gave her. Likewise, Secretary Duncan’s National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement knew its brief and delivered what was wanted.

What it delivered is a plan for diverting a great deal of the time, energy, and resources of American higher education into promoting a progressive ideology that emphasizes diversity, multiculturalism, sustainability, and global citizenship. It works out mainly as a vision of higher education oriented to turning students into political activists committed to the causes of the left.

Whether this could work is probably beside the point. A fair percentage of students always resist whatever piety is being thrust on them. But then again, many don’t resist or resist half-heartedly, and eager for social approval, go along with the narrative. A Crucible Moment is about defining that narrative. The story it tells is that American college students are too much focused on their careers and on developing narrow sets of skills. They need to awaken to their broader social responsibilities.

As a generality, of course, there is something right about this. Higher education should broaden students’ intellectual and cultural horizons and include a dimension of quickening students to larger loyalties and ethical imperatives. And indeed a majority of college students today are focused on their career prospects. Obama himself is constantly reminding them that college is just about that: a route to personal and national prosperity.

Just about that but not about just that. It is also, for example, about getting college credit for volunteering for progressive causes including Obama’s own campaign.

When I wrote about A Crucible Moment in January, one of the people who left a comment attempted to open up a little distance between Obama and the report by noting that “the Obama administration does not technically own an education department,” and suggesting that I was engaged in “a veiled ad hominem attack against President Obama or perhaps Barack Obama himself.” The remarks seemed incidental at the time but now worth addressing. A president does not “own” the departments of the executive branch, but he appoints their top officials and they become the primary agents for carrying out his policies. Observing the connection between the values enunciated by a president and the expressions of his political will is policy analysis, notad hominem attack. I have nothing to say here about the president’s person or character.

But I do think it is significant that A Crucible Moment appropriates the language of civics education and yet is totally silent on matters central to our polity such as property rights; ballot initiatives; grand juries; external audits; trustees; fiduciary responsibilities; prisons; military service; and even taxes. The word “elections” occurs twice; “voter registration” once (in an appendix); and the Bill of Rights once. “Civics” in the context of the report has little if anything to do with understanding the representative institutions of the government, the federalist system, checks and balances, the independent judiciary, the rule of law, the nation’s founding and the attendant debates on the Constitution, the key amendments to that Constitution, or the role of the states.

What then is this new “civics”? It is best to read the report itself, and I strongly recommend that. But the short summary is that “democracy’s future” depends on students who go to college and get “transformed” into “globally knowledgeable citizens” whose overriding concern is to overcome “dangerous economic inequalities.” The report is about using college to teach race and class consciousness and a way forward, via multiculturalism, once these forms of conscious have been established.

This might seem like carrying coals to Newcastle for much of American higher education. Many colleges and universities can bask in the awareness that they are already there. But surely there is more to be done.

And surely the Department of Education has the power and the ambition to do it.

Reshaping American Values

The economic inequality theme was highlighted in President Obama’s December 6, 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas where he declared “the defining issue of our time.” Thus Obama’s most important domestic policy speech of the last several years dovetails withA Crucible Moment. The diversion of college students into campaigning-for-credit, the change in the structure of student loans, and the report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement are three quite separate events, but they are linked in interesting ways. All three express an inclination towards centralizing and control of higher education. Whether it is appropriating college education as a campaign vehicle, appropriating the disbursement of student loans as a Department of Education function, or appropriating the curriculum to transmit a new ideology, these are steps away from treating higher education as an independent and autonomous part of civil society and steps toward subordinating higher education to a specific political vision.

Obama would certainly not be the first political leader to see the value in capturing higher education. That’s a pretty common pattern around the world and in history. It has not been, however, the form of American higher education, which has enjoyed both variety and a great deal of self-determination.

The other parts of Obama’s “better citizen” agenda that I will deal with in the next post— his diversity initiatives, loan forgiveness for public service, the foreseeable effects of his K-12 reforms, and his involvement many years ago with Public Allies—round out this picture of a higher-education policy focused not on reinforcing key American values but on transforming them.

This article originally appeared on March 14, 2012 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Articles in this series

Obama’s Higher-Ed Agenda

Supersizing: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 1 of 8

Price Controls: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 2 of 8

College for All: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 3 of 8

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