An Unrealistic Business Plan

The Committee for Economic Development’s (CED) new report, “Boosting Postsecondary Education Performance,” was not written in the spirit of Warren Buffett. Nor of Paul Volcker. More’s the pity. For if the report’s authors had acknowledged that trying to substantially boost performance without boosting investment is an unrealistic business plan, they would have seized the opportunity to change the national conversation to stimulate genuine growth and affordable, quality higher education.

Nevertheless, the CED has performed an important service in three regards. First, the report focuses on “broad access institutions,” which means “less-selective, less-expensive regional public and private colleges [and universities], community and technical colleges, and for-profit colleges.”

Too often, policy makers feature flagship publics, as if our future depends only on them. Research universities are important, particularly in graduate and professional education, creating new knowledge, and in the generally overlooked but essential role of preparing professors, the academy’s producers of value. But too much public policy privileges the already advantaged (compared to access institutions) flagships. Even the Obama administration, which has focused on community colleges, has overlooked four-year access institutions. Yet our success hinges on them.

Unfortunately, the CED report continues some policy makers’ misconstruction of for-profit universities as efficient. It is a false efficiency. As a sector, these institutions are VERY expensive to students and to the government. They have high tuition and they live largely off massive infusions of federal student aid. Disproportionate numbers of their students default on their loans at the government’s, not the corporations’ expense. That is a Wall Street bust model: high fees to average consumers, high defaults on loans for which the government and taxpayers pick up the tab.

A second contribution of the report is in emphasizing the importance of a system focus in state policy making, moving “beyond a one-institution-at-a-time approach to state policy.” Part of that focus is grounded in understanding, in contrast to too many state policy makers, that higher education is a valuable asset, pivotal to our future, not merely a cost to be minimized. With some important exceptions, most states have failed to develop policies that provide an integrated strategy for fostering affordable access to a quality higher education and ensuring a rational division of labor among institutions (a conclusion shared by Laura Perna and Joni Finney’s state policy project). The report could have extended that integration to include K-12 education, and it could have spoken more to articulation/transfer. In calling on business leaders, it could have focused on medium/small business leaders. But at least it got the systemic focus and higher education’s value as a public good right.

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INSIDE HIGHER EDUCATION

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