A couple of days ago, President Obama rolled up to the University of Buffalo to do something that presidents love to do: unveil Big New Plans for education.
He wore a cool blue robe, he spoke in that soothing voice, the students cheered a lot, and everybody took smartphone pics to put on Instagram, but among teachers and scholars who actually work in higher ed, the response has been overwhelmingly negative, as it should be, because the plan is a salad of PowerPoint-ready ideas that will get praised by Thomas Friedman without doing much to help American students. In fact, Mr. Obama’s plan is likely to damage public colleges.
I don’t think Obama is a cynical man. If I did, I wouldn’t have voted for him twice. Further, he is right about many facts on the ground. College is too expensive; the student-loan system (which his administration has done little to improve long-term) is an economically debilitating scandal; graduation rates are too low, especially at two-year schools and non-flagship state universities; and it is unclear how to actually determine the fundamental utility of mass college education within the current cultural and institutional environment.
The problem is, Obama’s grand gesture fails to address the present situation’s core problems. Here are some of those.
1. Obama shows little sign of doing anything concrete about the main reason tuition is so high: the collapse of state support for university education. (Thanks, Governor Reagan!) He also fails to offer any solutions to the problem of administrative bloat or the fact that too many schools spend too much money on football stadiums and flowerbeds.
2. He has nothing to say about the appalling reliance on part-time instructors and enormous lecture-hall classes, especially at public schools. Both of these trends seriously degrade the quality of undergraduate instruction.
3. As one blogger has already pointed out, the fetish for Big Data behind Obama’s plan is similar to the reasoning that gave us the No Child Left Behind catastrophe. Rating scales are rating scales; how do you quantify the value of a seminar on Latin American history? Of an ethics class? Of a first-year writing course?
4. These Whither Higher Ed? debates are pointless if the public K-12 system keeps wheezing along, pumping out students with underdeveloped critical-thinking skills. Obama’s concern about graduation rates is worrisome, because it could pressure schools to pass undergraduates who aren’t ready to be in college. We already do plenty of that.
5. Again with the MOOCs! Teachers may despise them, but if you’re a powerful person whose daughters’ education will continue to consist of small classes taught by expert teachers at wealthy schools (just like your own was), this reality might be hard to see.
The awful irony is that while these grand, splashy efforts to rationalize the market within which consumers make choices about education make for great speeches and flatter America’s sense of itself as a meritocracy that just needs some technocratic intervention to get back on track, they are actually examples of small-bore, short-term, cowardly thinking. They don’t require us to consider our culture’s underlying values or the long-term budget picture in a debt-ridden nation with a dying middle class.
What would require real ambition, courage, and commitment is putting college students into intimate, challenging classes taught by full-time professionals who aren’t treated like drones on the Subway line. But that doesn’t sound cutting-edge and cool. It sounds downright old-fashioned. It would cost lots of money, money that could just as easily be spent on a new deanship or used to subsidize the F-22. It would ask Americans to stop freaking out about how college isn’t worth anything unless it consists of career prep that leads to a job three hours after graduation.
And it would mean our President, who often played a populist on TV in 2008 and 2012, mounting something besides a bus tour where he goes around scolding those bad colleges.
Now to go chill on my oceanfront property in Kansas while I await this renaissance.