Higher Education Needs Fixing. Will Obama’s Plan Help?

Educators have already raised objections to President Barack Obama’s just-announced plan to “shake up” higher education. Speaking out against the ever-rising cost of college, Obama proposed a new official college ranking system that would be based on whether students are getting “value” for their tuition dollars.

“We have got a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” the President (who has often mentioned the amount of student debt he and the First Lady had to pay off after completing their studies) said to students at the State University of New York in Buffalo on Thursday. “The soaring cost of higher education has become a barrier and a burden on too many middle-class families.”

Obama spoke of the “value” a college education can offer in terms of accessibility and consideration of graduates’ post-college earnings; educators are concerned that no mention was made of the content or the quality of the education that a student receives.

College Ratings and Rankings

Higher education in the United States is “highly fragmented” and rating the thousands of colleges and universities by the criteria Obama has proposed (based on their having similar missions) will be a daunting task. It is arguable that an informal rating systems of colleges and university exists. Obama indeed criticized such private-sector rankings such as US News & World Report, saying that they have been “sometimes rewarding universities for raising costs.”

Colleges and universities routinely deny that these rankings affect their spending and other decisions. Reports of schools (and not unprestigious ones) sending inflated SAT scores to publications like US News & World Report are a sign of how pressured they feel to compete in college rankings and to get the best students. Many schools have embarked on extensive renovations of their campuses (taking out huge amounts of debt in the process), the better to attract students.

College is a business in the United States and Obama’s plan addressed common frustrations at a time when too many students are graduating with limited job prospects and huge amounts of debt.

Obama’s New Plan For Higher Ed

Under the new plan, student aid would be directly linked to the White House’s ratings. Students at more highly performing schools would receive larger Pell Grants and more favorable rates on student loans. Colleges and universities would be rewarded for enrolling large numbers of students eligible for Pell Grants.

Obama’s plan also seeks to toughen the requirements under which students would receive aid, calling for them to complete a certain percentage of their classes before receiving continued funding. Currently, students receive aid in a lump sum at the beginning of the semester. Under the proposed change, students who dropped out of a class would no longer receive funding — would not continue to receive federal aid if they had ceased to attend school.

The plan also calls on schools to innovate, whether by redesigning courses to rely on competency-based learning rather than “seat time” (basing student learning on credit hours earned), use technology for student services and make use of massive open online courses, all with a view to “[spur] innovation in a way that drives down costs while preserving quality.”

Americans Owe a Trillion Dollars in Debt From College Loans

As educators point out, Obama’s plan did not address some of colleges’ and universities’ own criticisms about the state of U.S. higher education, including issues such as a lack of funding for programs, ever-growing tuition and the use, more and more, of adjunct faculty.

Such concerns can rather be seen as signs of why higher education is desperately in need of some kind of change, from how much it costs to how students access the courses they need to prepare themselves for a career.

A trillion dollars: that’s the oft-repeated amount of debt on college loans that Americans owe. $26,000 is the amount that the average student owes after graduating, as family incomes have only risen 16 percent in the past three decades while tuition at public universities has risen 250 percent. For graduating seniors, a session with a financial aid officer is now as routine as choosing a class ring (if you can afford it). The president’s plan addresses the issue of student debt by saying that all students should qualify for an option that only some students can now tap into, capping student loan repayments at 10 percent of their income.

Whatever you think of Obama’s plan — that it imposes too many external standards and more “government meddling” on schools, that it is wrong to tie financial aid to academic performance  – it is an attempt to shape up and change a system that is not working and to “prod” colleges and universities to do things differently for the sake of students and their families.

Those with only a high school diploma earn only half the income of college graduates and face higher rates of unemployment. We all agree that having a college degree matters. We need to figure out how to make that happen for students and without saddling them with a lifetime of debt to a school they left a long time ago.

Photo from Thinkstock


Mike Wilkinson
Mike Wilkinson4 years ago

for those of us who never wanted go to college we could get a job that provided ''on the job training'' a concept that I feel has disappeared from the employers game book......the employer wants employees to cover the costs of education,cell phone, clothes, tools, transportation, a non union shop, drug testing.......education and health care have been corporatized......American life is becoming militarized......and yes I was in the Navy in the early 70s.....just a personal observation......I always felt the game was rigged in favor of the house.....think Animal House and PCU...

Margaret Goodman
Margaret G4 years ago

I honestly do not have the solution to the problem of underemployed college graduates with big debts. I have some ideas on how to alleviate it:

- Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and raise it automatically when the cost of living goes up. This is actually a conservative idea. In the 1950's, minimum wage was $1/hour, and tuition at an expensive school was $1,000 per year. By that ratio, the miminum wage should be $30 per hour to cover the $30,000 tuition at an expensive school. .

- Remove the road blocks to unionizing. Strong unions make a strong middle class. Incomes of the bottom 90% have suffered because the unions have been weakened.

- Tax the rich with the tax rates, adjusted for inflation, in force during the Eisenhower years. The tax money would subsidize public universities, colleges, and community colleges at their former levels.

- Heavily tax employers who send their jobs overseas

- Keep student loan rates at the level of the Federal Reserve prime rate. Banks get this rate, and students are a better investment.

- Institute single-payer health insurance, which eliminates the expensive middle man of the health insurance companies

- For students at private institutions, especially the for-profit ones, federal loans should go to only those students attending institutions whose graduates obtain the jobs they trained for.

Vicky P.
Vicky P4 years ago

One thing won't fix the education system, everything in the US at this point needs fixing.

Tim C.
Tim C4 years ago


Marie W.
Marie W4 years ago

Higher Ed in US in un-needed and mostly just for profit. Even amidst today's high unemployment levels, job are going unfilled, often because employers are unable to find men and women with the advanced math, science and technology skills that modern manufacturers need. Job in skilled trades are also unfilled.

I would therefore suggest the European model.

Students with demonstrated mathematical, science or tech abilities and interest are given encouragement; sent to special pre-college schooling and then free college/university. No teaching to the test in Europe.

If no ability/interest is demonstrated in a college designated area [not allowed to buy that college degree like the USA]; students are apprenticed to learn a trade. Cooperation with businesses allows them to start training at age 15 using the 'apprentice, journeyman, master' system. They can learn anything from baking bread to car repair; store sales to machine tooling; medical technician to caregiver. Something useful- no one is allowed to just 'drop out'. Rather than waste time and money on education per se; make sure they know how to DO something. They are also taught life skills to work better, take care of themselves and be better members of society.

Luz Nelson
Luz Nelson4 years ago

Nowadays, education is a huge business from tuition to books with no care at all about the quality of the instruction given to the students. We need a free higher education system like other countries and pay just for the supplies needed it to learn. We really need to keep up with another big powers and educate our children for free so we can stay a power in modern technology, new developments, science, medicine, robotics, etc. People, if you have not notice, we are falling behind.

Phillip Ferrell
Phillip Ferrell4 years ago

Republicans' plan sure as heck won't help nothing, and that's a fact. If ya don't believe me, learn.

DIane L.
DIane L4 years ago


Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


Maureen Hawkins
Maureen Hawkins4 years ago

"Competency-based learning"--sounds like the kind of standardized tests that are already ruining primary and secondary education. They lead to focusing on content instead of on analytical reading, writing, and thinking skills & teaching to the test. Thus they discourage the kind of real learning employers want. In a recent survey, 93 percent of the employers surveyed said that "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate's] undergraduate major, and more than 75 percent of employers say they want more emphasis on . . . critical thinking, complex problem-solving, [and] written and oral communication. According to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, "Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Students in content-based majors, such as education, business, & social work showed no gain in these areas.

MOOCs are fine for the few students who are highly motivated & learn best aurally. However, the drop-out rate in them is enormous! Plus, the model they use has students grading one another's essays. If they were qualified to do this, they'd already have a PhD. MOOCs may be better with a flipped classroom, combined learning approach in which the students have a small class wi