Obama On Education: Bully Pulpit At Its Best … And Not Much Else

President Obama is adding to a tried and true backyard-barbecue conversation that is sure to win points with the regular guy: He is complaining about the cost of college. And just like the regular guy grilling hot dogs and burgers, there is very little he can do about it. At best, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on Friday, the administration can “move some resources potentially more toward those universities that are doing things right” in lowering tuition. What exactly those things are remains a mystery.

The White House is undaunted, finding a few areas where it can pick at Congress for inaction. President Obama is dedicating the next week of his life to shaming Congress into halting student loan rates from doubling. If Congress doesn't act by June 30, interest rates on student loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The administration says that would add $1,000 to a student loan over its life, assuming the rates stay stable or go down with congressional action over the next few years. U.S. PIRG estimates the average subsidized Stafford loan borrower would have $2,800 in increased student-loan debt over a 10-year repayment term if the interest rate is allowed to double.

It’s a pickle that Republicans say could have been avoided in 2007 when a higher-education bill passed with a term-limited and below-market interest rate. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., issued a perfectly timed statement during Duncan’s appearance at a White House briefing on Friday saying a one-year freeze on the interest-rate hike would cost the taxpayers $6 billion. Kline has been making the same statement about the student-loan hike all year: “Bad policy based on lofty campaign promises has put us in an untenable situation. We must now choose between allowing interest rates to rise or piling billions of dollars on the backs of taxpayers,” he said.

Never mind all that. The point is to repeat in as many ways as possible that the administration is on the case when it comes to college education. Obama spent an unusual amount of time talking about higher education in his State of the Union address and issuing veiled threats (that have been repeated by Duncan) that uncooperative colleges will face unnamed consequences if they don’t work with the White House to lower costs.

“Going to college is the pathway to the middle class,” Duncan said. “You really have to have a brick in your head not to understand that education is the cornerstone of our economic future,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

The statements show that this White House is making a concerted effort to tie education as closely with economic growth as possible—pulling the domestic policy issue out of the isolated ivory tower in which it has resided for decades. It’s a good move, even though the best tools the administration can wield to promote it are rhetorical.

To achieve the high-tech manufacturing base that Obama envisions, it will be necessary to train hundreds of thousands of workers for skilled jobs that will require technical training and some college-level coursework. That’s a heavy lift in the current climate, in which about half of the students seeking an associates degree require remedial training that they should have gotten in high school, according to Complete College America.

No one disagrees with the problem, but the coordination is lacking on an actual solution. Congress and the White House seem to be acting out of sync. To wit, the Education Department on Thursday released a new blueprint for legislation that would reauthorize career- and technical-education programs that target nontraditional learners like single parents or displaced homemakers. The action was greeted as a step in the right direction by educators and lawmakers like Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. But unfortunately, there is no legislation yet in Congress on a similar front. Instead, both the House and Senate have drafted versions of the Workforce Investment Act that would rejigger job-training programs and help colleges tailor their curriculum to workforce needs. The legislation is stalled and the White House hasn’t weighed in.


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