President Obama: Please Don’t Follow Rick Perry on University ‘Reform’

By John Willingham, Editor

In his State of the Union address last week and then again in his speech on January 27 at the University of Michigan, President Obama made it clear that he has joined the fight to cut college tuition costs and reform the way universities operate so that they can deliver better “value” to students.

Value. The word is everywhere these days. Often it is measured by “outcomes,” another word of the times, less elegant but probably more relevant, suggesting a basic functionality that value may, at least on occasion, transcend.

When it comes to higher education reform, the two words have had a disquieting tendency to converge in meaning, so that what many alleged reformers mean by value is merely a quantitative increase, literally more “out-come” from whatever has been involved in production. In this way, value becomes productivity.

An emphasis on productivity, however, instead of on quality and excellence is a major threat to public university honors programs, where value is qualitative, deriving from smaller—not larger, more “functional”–classes; from outstanding teaching and support; and from the opportunity to work one-on-one with professors on undergraduate research.

Honors graduates benefit their states by often remaining near home and boosting the local economies, and they benefit their universities by improving graduation rates. This is the best form of value, in which the practical, the good of the whole, and the individual’s personal development all come together. But honors programs and colleges already find it difficult, if not quite impossible, to fund the type of education that fosters this true, best value.

The use of the word value in the context of university reform has been circulating for years, but more recently the conservative critics of public universities have indeed used the word as a synonym for “productivity,” by which they mean education on the cheap for as many students as possible. Some of these critics, most notably Richard Vedder of the aptly-named Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), candidly display their bias against public funding of, well, almost anything.

In addition to being a professor at Ohio University and a proponent of the Austrian school of economics, Vedder is the director of (CCAP) and a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). The TPPF is a conservative think tank that, with Vedder’s help and Gov. Perry’s support, launched an attack on Texas universities in 2010.

On December 21, 2010, Vedder commented in Forbes magazine that “there is no doubt in my mind today that governmental subsidies to higher education are excessive–our nation would be better off if we spent less. Indeed, I suspect no governmental spending commitment at all would be preferable to the situation today (although the optimum may be greater than zero).” [Emphasis added.]

It is fitting that the quote is from Forbes, because Vedder is also the man behind the annual Forbes‘ “America’s Best Colleges” list, which makes the private university bias of the annual U.S. News rankings look like an amicus brief on behalf of public colleges. Looking at the Forbes rankings of the 34 public research universities that are members of the prestigious American Association of Universities, we find that their average ranking is…243.

Forbes ranks Georgia Tech at 397—or 362 places lower than the university’s U.S. News ranking.

University leaders in Texas are well aware of Vedder because of his work for the TPPF. The foundation and Vedder led the attack on UT-Austin and Texas A&M last year. Vedder wrote a so-called study that criticized UT Austin, especially, for spending too much on academic research and for not requiring faculty to teach enough classes. An A&M professor later argued convincingly that the study was based on sloppy research and poor statistical analysis.

Gov. Perry and the TPPF claimed during the debate in Texas that it was possible to provide a bachelor’s degree to Texas students at a total four-year cost of $10,000. In light of the governor’s campaign for the presidency, the claim does not seem quite so astonishing as it did a year ago.

What is Value for the President?

But now, with President Obama’s recent emphasis on the public university reform issue, the overriding question becomes: What does value mean to the president and to Congress. Will the conservative business definition of productivity take hold, or will the proposed reforms do as little damage as possible to the hard-won gains in quality that most public universities have achieved?

“We are putting colleges on notice,” the president said in his Michigan speech. “You can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”

While prestigious and wealthy private universities can keep pace with expenses because of huge endowments, most public universities cannot, especially after the dramatic cuts in state funding over the past two decades.

It is encouraging that, in his State of the Union speech and in news releases, the president discussed a “shared approach” to control tuition costs, requiring coordinated actions on the part of the federal government, the states, and the public universities themselves.

One part of this shared approach is to make more financial aid available to universities that do the following:

(1) “Setting responsible tuition policy, relatively lower net tuition prices and/or restraining tuition growth;
(2) “Providing good value to students and families, offering quality education and training that prepares graduates to obtain employment and repay their loans; and
(3) “Serving low-income students, enrolling and graduating relatively higher numbers of Pell-eligible students.”

So there’s that word value again, in paragraph 2. One hint from that paragraph is that post-graduation pay and employment will be key measures of value. (And evidence that loans will be repaid.) Indeed, the additional details already provided about the president’s plans make it clear just how important pay and employment will be:

“The President will call for a college scorecard for all degree-granting institutions, designed to provide essential information about college costs, graduation rates, and potential earnings, all in an easy-to-read format that will help students and families choose a college that is well-suited to their needs, priced affordably, and consistent with their career and education goals.” [Emphasis added.]

If the statement above is not a clear enough indication of the importance of income as a value metric, the detailed plan adds the following:

“The President is also proposing to begin collecting earnings and employment information for colleges, so that students can have an even better sense of the post post-graduation outcomes they can expect.” Yes, outcomes.

One reason that the president’s focus on pay causes some disquiet is that Richard Vedder and other conservative critics of public universities likewise cite pay as a critical outcome. But pay, if it is used at all as a measure of educational value, requires careful consideration of geographical factors as well as a deep respect for the differing missions that public universities may have.

Our research at PublicUniversityHonors.Com shows that while postgraduate pay, at entry level and at mid-career, correlates to Forbes and U.S. News rankings, pay does not correlate with some measures of excellence, such as the number of prestigious undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships earned by graduates, or the depth of honors curricula. It is noteworthy that the scholarships and honors curricula DO correlate significantly, as they should if one is concerned about the highest levels of excellence.

If there is in fact an over-emphasis on pay as a metric to determine federal and state support, universities will eventually be forced to reduce resources for the humanities and social sciences, and even some hard sciences, because students who graduate with majors in these disciplines do not earn as much as business, engineering, and computer science graduates.

Honors programs and colleges are already hard-pressed to integrate honors curricula with the demanding departmental requirements for some remunerative majors. With fewer honors and non-honors faculty and course offerings in the less remunerative disciplines, the brightest students may emerge from their public universities with a huge disadvantage as compared to their counterparts from private elites, who will continue to benefit from smaller classes and the development of critical thinking.

No longer will public honors programs be able to compete with the elite private institutions, unless the honors programs or colleges have large private endowments. Few are so fortunate. Public universities as a group will increasingly be identified as training institutions rather than true universities committed to excellence across the disciplines.

The president, to his credit, said that the states “have to do their part by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets…We know that these state budget cuts have been the largest factor in tuition increases over the past decade.”

Yet how realistic is it to hope for stronger state support now that the state legislators and governors have become accustomed to forcing universities to take the brunt of criticism for tuition increases. With legislative support for some flagship universities now below 15 percent of total operating costs, just how far are we already from Richard Vedder’s dream of zero funding?

The productivity crowd has, for the moment, defined what value is. If the president and Congress agree with them, public university graduates may be lucky to get what Rick Perry predicted: a degree worth, maybe, ten grand.