Dissecting Obama’s Message

WASHINGTON — Is it feasible for every American to have at least one year of postsecondary education or training? What would have to happen to make that possible? Would federal financial aid and other policies need to change? Would the distribution of students among different kinds of colleges have to change?

Those were among the many questions that college officials and higher education policy makers traded Wednesday as they contemplated the implications of President Obama’s unexpected call in his Congressional address Tuesday night for a campaign to ensure that every American has "at least one year or more of higher education or career training." (A tangent: If you’d like, you can read the president’s speech in Farsi, Swahili or other languages. Just had to note that.)

As is often the case in such speeches, which tend to cover a lot of ground, the president gave few details about exactly what he was proposing, forcing those seeking to analyze it to engage in a fair bit of tea leaf reading. They differed somewhat in their views of how much Obama’s remarks departed from previous presidents’ calls for expanding college opportunity; whether federal priorities and policies would be likely to change to achieve it (a question that could be partially answered today when the administration releases a first glance at its 2010 budget blueprint); and whether focusing more aggressively on getting those who’ve never been to college to get at least a little would conflict with the other goal the president laid out Tuesday night: "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

The overwhelming reaction of college leaders and others interviewed was elation, though, at the centrality of higher education in the new president’s initial formulation of his big-picture agenda. Amid all of the challenges facing the country — two wars, a recessionary economy, a teetering banking system, a needed health care overhaul, all in the context of a trillion-dollar federal deficit — it seemed likely that higher education would take a backseat to other priorities.

But in fact, the economic crisis seems to have shot postsecondary education up the ladder of policy goals, with Obama identifying education as one of three areas — energy and health care being the other two — that will require "long-term investments that will lead to new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world."

It was the focus on higher education as a tool for economic recovery and competitiveness that, for many observers, distinguished Obama’s comments from those of many of his predecessors.

“No president in modern times has used an address to a joint session of Congress to make such a clear case for higher education’s role in providing the solutions America needs to compete in the world economy," Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "If America is to compete economically — if we are to pull ourselves out of this recession — we must have a competitive work force and a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. We cannot afford to lose a single citizen — so important is this new investment in human capital."

Obama’s assertion that America’s economy has evolved to the point that a high school education is no longer enough for the vast majority of workers is not a brand new one, even for U.S. presidents; President Clinton made much the same argument in the late 1990s when he vowed "to make the 13th and 14th years of education as universal as the first 12 are today."

But the new president was much more explicit about defining the "one year" of college broadly to include not only traditional higher education but worker training. "This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma."

In embracing that view, Obama’s vision is consistent with that of an increasing chorus of policy experts and grant makers, who have argued that the country must educate and train significantly greater numbers of Americans if it is to remain economically competitive, and that the heavy lifting in that effort is likely to be done primarily by the open access institutions — community colleges, for-profit institutions and less selective four year public universities — that have historically served the low income and other students who tend to be most left out of traditional colleges.

The president’s message resonated particularly with officials in the community college and for-profit sectors and with analysts like Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, which, with organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the College Board, has in recent months emphasized the need to ratchet up Americans’ college attendance. Lumina calls its goal of increasing the proportion of Americans with a college credential by 2025 its "big goal" project.

"We understand why they chose this as one of the three tiers of [the economic] strategy," Merisotis said Wednesday. "They see an opportunity to focus on community colleges and on the idea that you can quickly get people into a re-training, workforce development mode by focusing on postsecondary education." That is especially true in fields that connect to the administration’s other priorities: health care, energy and "green" jobs.

Obama’s comments were "sweet music to the ears of people in career colleges," said Harris Miller, president of the Career College Association, which represents for-profit institutions. "The fact that any president gave higher education that much priority [in a State of the Union-like speech] is exciting; the fact that he tied it that directly to economic competitiveness is very exciting, given that that’s what our institutions are all about."

Miller said he heard in Obama’s words a recognition that higher education is increasingly coming to be defined more broadly than by the "research universities and liberal arts academies" that have traditionally dominated the popular conception of higher education. "We still need those institutions," he said, "but for the large majority of people who are not designed to follow what has become the traditional higher education path, it is the opportunities provided at our institutions and many community colleges that are likely to enable the president to achieve his goal."

More than a quarter of eighth graders do not have any kind of postsecondary experience by their late 20s, and some number of others are "incidental" students who earn fewer than 10 credits, according to federal data.

Is it possible to get tens of millions more Americans into higher education for at least a year? And what would it take to make it so? Groups that have pushed this agenda have focused on improving high school dropout programs, better aligning high school and college curriculums and standards, and increasing financial aid for needy students, among other things. But many of those aims are costly, and at a time of financial turmoil — despite Obama’s promise to invest in higher education — it may be difficult to fulfill the college-for-all goal without making some difficult choices about how to spend the country’s limited higher ed dollars, argued Arthur Hauptman, a financial aid consultant in Washington.

The president sent some mixed messages Tuesday night, Hauptman suggested, by also vowing that the country would increase the rate at which its citizens get college degrees, reclaiming its former standing as best in the world on that (flawed, he and others argue) measure. But if the Obama administration were to truly focus on getting more Americans at least some postsecondary education or training, "you’d pour more money into community colleges, through student aid at the federal level and in the proportion of money that states give to community colleges rather than other institutions," Hauptman said. "We have tended to invest the most in our universities, less in our community colleges, and certainly less in proprietary schools.

"The main way we’re slipping [in international comparisons] now," he added, "is in attainment at the sub-baccalaureate level, and if you want to improve that, you have to increase the capacity and performance of community colleges. It’s a pretty inefficient mechanism to say we’re going to invest in all of higher education."

Leaders in other sectors of higher education, it almost goes without saying, would certainly bristle at such an approach.

Clifford Adelman, a senior analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and a leading education researcher, agreed that steps like those Hauptman cited could be necessary, and suggested that the government, if it is serious about getting more Americans at least some formal college training, must "change the financial aid formulas to make them more part-time friendly," since many of those who have been deterred from higher education until now are likeliest to attend while they’re working, too.

He expressed concern, too, that one of the primary ways that the president suggested achieving his "college for everyone" proposal — through an expanded, refundable tax credit in exchange for community service — might not help many of those who don’t now go to college. A 27-year-old single mother who has never gone to college is unlikely to be drawn back to higher education by the prospect of working in a soup kitchen, Adelman said — when would she have time?

Adelman also suggested that some of the ways of ensuring that more Americans get at least some college training might involve redefining how "college" is measured — including by recognizing "prior learning" for adults.

"There are lots of people in this country who can demonstrate through a validation process — formal, informal — how much knowledge they picked up in training, on the job, in the course of life," Adelman said. "You’d need a work force of juries and a system of presenting" that knowledge, but "I’m sure that the knowledge content of our society is higher than we think it is," or than it appears based just on the numbers of those who’ve formally gone on to college.

David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said that as heartened as two-year college officials were by President Obama’s recognition of the role of their institutions, many of them would probably question their ability to absorb significantly more students without additional money. "While adequate student financial aid is essential, it’s clear that institutional resources are also necessary to help the most academically underprepared students," with advising, student services and other support, Baime said.

"And a lot of institutions, particularly now, just don’t have those resources."  (InsideHigherEd)

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