CFHE Response to President Obama’s August 22, 2013 Plan for Higher Education

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education [http://futureofhighered.org/ ] is a loose association of the major faculty unions and faculty associations in the United States. These groups have come together several times each year to share information on issues affecting high education and to shape responses to those issues that emphasize the paramount importance of instruction. I encourage you to become more involved in this national advocacy group.

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A White House fact sheet released in support of President Obama’s plan notes that “declining state funding has been the biggest reason for rising tuition at public institutions.” Any plan to rescue college affordability simply must begin by addressing such harsh facts as these:

Between 2008 and 2013, state funding for higher education as a percentage of state personal income declined by 22.6%;

States have cut their annual investment in higher education by nearly half since 1980 (February 2013 report from Postsecondary Education Opportunity);

As a result, institutions have both increased tuition and diverted funding from instruction, so that 75% of the faculty now work on temporary, low-wage, contracts without benefits, which undermine their ability to properly serve students, especially the most underprepared and underprivileged.

Unless current trends change, many states are in a “Race to Zero” in funding higher education.

Unfortunately, beyond exhorting states to spend more, the President’s plan offers no direct solution to this problem.  As three reports by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education detail, however, reasonable alternatives exist (http://futureofhighered.org/funding-higher-education-the-search-for-possibilities/#more-353).   As our reports demonstrate, it would take only a relatively small commitment of resources to restore higher education funding levels to previous norms.

Instead, President Obama’s plan endorses proposals that at best tinker around the edges of the problem and could have hugely negative consequences for students and for the future of higher education.  In the absence of a mandate for increased investment the President’s proposal to reduce time to graduation is likely to promote a cheapened curriculum, hardly a formula for increasing American competiveness during an era of intensified global competition.

The President’s comments on MOOCs and online technology seem uninformed about the dismal completion rates in MOOCs or research suggesting the serious problems online classes present for many students—particularly community college students and less well-prepared students.  In the coming weeks, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education [www.futureofhighered.org] will release papers on these and other topics related to MOOCs and the rush to online learning in higher education.

Tying funding to graduation rates also has the potential for negative unintended consequences—to protect their “ratings,” colleges could simply decrease standards or screen out less prepared applicants, as we have seen some K-12 schools do when faced with similar incentives.  While matriculating and graduating more of our college-age population is certainly a worthy goal, quantitative measurements of success are likely to benefit mainly those institutions already serving the best prepared and most privileged students and which are already among the most well-funded.  Establishment of a federal rating system, such as that proposed by the President, could also endanger the very diversity and freedom that have made the American higher education system the envy of the world.

Fortunately, these and other devilish details in the President’s plan are already being discussed (See, for instance, http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/08/23/obamas-ratings-system-may-be-difficult-pull-essay).

We urge President Obama to discuss his plan for higher education with faculty, staff, students, and their parents.  While it is clear that outside groups like the Gates and Lumina Foundations have had enormous influence in shaping these proposals (http://chronicle.com/article/4-Key-Ideas-in-Obamas-Plan/141239/), to craft a successful plan the President and the Secretary of Education would also do well to consider the ideas of those with actual experiences “in the trenches” of higher education.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: CFHE Letter in Support of the City College of San Francisco | Academe Blog

  2. Pingback: State Law to Open Public Colleges and Universities to For-Profit Companies? Not a Good Idea. | Academe Blog

  3. After the recent announcement of the October release of a series of reports on the “for profits”, I have spent time reviewing materials on this site, including membership, key policy positions, comments and other materials. As the editor of a foresight journal that focuses on the future of the HEI’s and also as a “grey-beard” who was part of the alternative university movement of the 60′s and 70′s, I am concerned that I see no action on the part of any faculty to actually take control of their own campus as a model or evidence that alternatives are possible. Most of the efforts here seem aimed at some undetermined party or parties to become sufficiently incensed that they will introduce a policy and funding pool to correct the sins of the past and restore the university to some yet to be fully defined future. It is looking outward for some form of a rescue of a very diverse and uneven system rather than tackling the problems at the home institution by concerned individuals. Even if, by some miracle foundations and governments were to supply funding, there seems to be no clear set of specifics to deal with the plethora of competing alternatives- there is no vision, only reactive condemnation. I see no faculty willing to risk stepping up to the plate, putting their future at risk for a change that they have defined and, as with the civil rights movement, again of the 60′s-80′s, a willingness to be bloodied for their beliefs.

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