Obama's Higher-Ed Agenda

Peter Wood

President Obama’s account of what has happened, is happening, and will happen in higher education; his various policy statements; and his administration’s agency initiatives deserve to be considered as a whole. They add up to a large and energetic attempt to recast the role of American colleges and universities. But while each of his major statements and every one of his administration’s actions has been well publicized, somehow the larger picture gets relatively little attention. I’d like to attempt a synthesis in the next several posts, first going through what I take to be the eight major points, one by one, and then reassembling them as a whole. His eight major points seem to be:

(1) The United States needs a massive expansion of undergraduate enrollments. His benchmark for this was set February 24, 2009 in his address to ajoint session of Congress where he enunciated “a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” To achieve that percentage would mean more than doubling college enrollments, to about 40 million students, by 2016.

(2) Colleges and universities should limit tuition increases. He enunciated this in a speech at the University of Michigan on January 27, 2012, a few days after his State of the Union address. He told the audience he planned to create a new $10-billion fund for higher education but that the new financing would be contingent on colleges and universities limiting tuition. “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”

(3) The United States should be a place where, in principle, everyone should go to college. He has stated this a number of times, most recently in his January 24 State of the Union address, where he made it part of “the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”

(4) A college education should convince students to adopt progressive views of “social justice.” This is the core meaning of the report, A Crucible Moment, launched in a White House ceremony on January 10, and which I described under the title Civics Lessons.

(5) Colleges and universities should aggressively pursue racial preferences in admissions. The Obama administration gave this idea its most forceful endorsement in a December 2, 2011 joint guidance from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights, saying that colleges and universities “are not required to implement race-neutral approaches if, in their judgment, the approaches would be unworkable.”

(6) Colleges and universities will need to adapt to the de facto nationalization of K-12 curricula being put into place as “voluntary” state standards. The so-called Common Core State Standards are ostensibly the work of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), but are in every practical way an Obama administration initiative muscled into place by the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top Fund,” which ties federal subsidies to participation in the Common Core.

(7) For-profit higher education differs fundamentally from traditional not-for-profit higher education and therefore for-profit colleges should be held to stricter regulatory controls. The Department of Education took the lead in 2010 in throwing up roadblocks to the emerging for-profit sector. The rules have been revised and legally challenged, but the administration remains intent on impeding the growth of this particular sector of higher education even as it presses for expansion in the not-for-profit sector.

(8) Colleges and universities need to prepare more science and math teachers and colleges need to encourage more students to pursue careers in the STEM fields. Today (February 7) President Obama is announcing a new “plan to invest $100-million to help train 100,000 new educators over the next decade.”

I don’t mean to overlook any major themes. Early in his administration, President Obama emphasized the importance of community colleges and the need to improve degree-completion rates. I take these to be components of his ideal of making the United States the world’s leader in the percentage of the population with college degrees.

Despite President Obama’s recent feistiness on student debt and spiraling college costs, he is a man who has generally identified himself with the ethos of contemporary American higher education and has, in turn, been embraced by the faculty, students, and the broader institution. He bridges with ease the differences between the fiscally challenged state university and the financially thriving summit of elite education, and a whole set of related tensions: between going to college to get a job and going to college to get a liberal education; aspiring to financial security and aspiring to be part of the ruling class; and aspiring to be part of America and aspiring to be a “citizen of the world.”

The clear affinity between President Obama and the American higher education establishment is no warrant that these policies are good for the country or even for colleges and universities. That is something that we need to weigh independently. 

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on February 7, 2012.

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