#highered and Obama: the first four years

Posted on January 21, 2013

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266449_web_5-22-12-obama-joplin_willAs President Obama prepares for today’s public swearing in of his second term of office, it’s as good a time as any to look back at how higher education has fared under this president’s first term, and to look forward at what might be in store for higher ed over the next four years.

The first four years of the Obama presidency have been marked by difficulty and turbulence. The economic mess he inherited hit many sectors hard, and higher education was no exception.

Many colleges and universities, perhaps for the first time in their histories, resorted to layoffs, furloughs and program cuts to deal with their financial struggles. The rise of MOOCs threatens to turn the traditional model of higher education on its ear, even as campuses try to survive by raising tuition while more college graduates struggle under the strain of enormous debt loads. The latest punch to higher ed’s gut came last week, when Moody’s Investors Service gave all of higher ed a failing grade. Moody’s pessimistic outlook (which I briefly discussed here last Thursday) could do some major harm to colleges and universities that seek to borrow money for badly needed facilities upgrades or other projects.

No president can wave a magic wand and make these troubles disappear. But a president can set an agenda and cast a vision for a nation’s future — at least for four years at a time.

So, how well did Obama do at setting a higher ed agenda and casting a vision for our sector during his first term? And what does he envision for higher ed in his second term?

First-term promises (mostly) kept

Obama’s first-term vision for higher education seem to all connect to the ideals of keeping college affordable and accessible to people of all income levels. He also wants to increase the college graduation rate and get more students to major in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) in order to improve our nation’s global competitiveness.

Peter Wood, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, sees Obama’s vision as encompassing eight major themes, all of which touch on the issues I mention above. Lumped together, these themes constitute “a large and energetic attempt to recast the role of American colleges and universities.” (For an in-depth treatment of Obama’s higher ed agenda, read Wood’s introductory piece on the topic in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And to get even more in-depth, read each of Wood’s blog posts on the subject.)

Since it’s difficult to view success or failure of broad categories like affordability and accessibility, we’ll need to get more granular and take a look at how well Obama’s main initiatives fared, or didn’t fare, during his first term.

For that, we turn to a recent analysis by Politifact.com. The website says Obama has largely kept or made progress on nearly three-quarters of 508 campaign promises from 2008. He’s made the greatest progress in the areas of health care and education.

On the post-secondary education side of things, Obama has kept most of his promises in terms of trying to keep college affordable and accessible, and in trying to increase the number of college graduates. Those include promises to recruit math and science degree graduates into teaching careers, reduce subsidies to private student lenders, expand Pell grants for low-income students, increase research opportunities for college students and increase funding for land-grant institutions.

But Obama fell short in a few areas, such as his efforts to create a college tax credit program (a compromise that watered down the initiative), simplify the financial aid application process (another compromise), to support college credit initiatives and to create scholarships to recruit new teachers.

The next four years

So, what is in store for higher education during the second term of the Obama presidency? I discussed this in my post-election post, The higher ed agenda and Obama’s second term. But in case you missed it, here’s a recap:

  • Slowing tuition growth. In the Obama campaign’s fall 2012 Blueprint for America’s Future (PDF) is a section titled “Improve Education for Middle-Class Jobs.” It specifically calls for cutting tuition growth in half over the next decade. It also calls for doubling campus-based student aid and incentives for schools that limit tuition growth. So the take-away here is that Obama wants colleges and universities to work on affordability, and maybe somewhere down the line there will be some carrots for those that adhere to the as-yet-unspecified goals.
  • Hope for STEM education. Contained in that same document is Obama’s call for 100,000 more math and science teachers so we can “out-compete China and Germany” (among other nations, presumably) “by out-educating them.” The STEM Master Teacher Corps and investments in research and innovation into the best ways to teach math and science will help improve math and science education nationwide.” That STEM Master Teacher Corps, by the way, has a goal of 10,000, not 100,000. So to reach the blueprint’s 100,000 goal will require more math and science teaching degrees.
  • Job training programs. The blueprint calls for community colleges to train 2 million new workers for “good jobs that actually exist.”
  • Research opportunities to support the blueprint’s goals of expanding jobs in manufacturing and energy. To bolster manufacturing, Obama says he wants to build “a new network of 15 to 20 manufacturing innovation institutes to bring together business and research universities to ensure that the next generation of products are invented and manufactured here.” Meeting his “all of the above” energy goals will also require investment in research universities.

The president’s vision for higher education is hopeful and progressive as well as pragmatic. But he’ll continue to call on colleges and universities to become more accountable and to keep costs down. He will likely continue a theme from his 2012 State of the Union Address, when he told higher ed leaders everywhere: “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury, it is an economic imperative that every family should be able to afford.”

Given the tenor of that statement, you might think Obama is not much of a fan of higher education. But you would be wrong. As Wood notes in his Chronicle piece from last February, shortly after the president’s SotU address:

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.”

Meanwhile, America’s colleges and universities will continue to struggle to bridge their missions with their economic problems accelerated by the impact of technological advances.

Maybe more important than asking what is the president of the United States’ vision for higher education is the question: What is your vision, Mr. or Ms. President, of your college’s or university’s future?

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