The Corner

The President’s Higher-Ed Plan

I think the higher-ed proposals the president began to lay out today have a lot of promise. The basic concept at the core of his rethinking of the longstanding liberal approach to higher-education policy is that the value of a college education is not infinite—it needs to be measured and assessed on a case-by-case basis like value is measured in other arenas. The values of different degrees and different institutions vary immensely. An open-ended approach to college loans encourages tuition hikes and the separation of tuition levels from the value of the education they fund, and government needs to use the leverage of its role as a funder to better enable consumer behavior, rather than to undermine it as it has been doing for too long. 

The president’s approach of course takes for granted the federal government’s role as essentially the nation’s exclusive lender for education costs, and so tends to treat college education as a government-provided good, and to treat loans (rather than means-tested grants) as the preeminent form of government assistance in that arena. That’s problematic (borrowing money from your government is a very problematic practice more generally in a republic, and the degree of federal ownership of both educational and housing debt in America at this point is a serious and under-examined problem), but we have of course gone a very long way down that road, and had done so long before the Obama administration. Given where we are, what the president proposes seems on the whole to be a move in the right direction. It should offer a fair amount of room for some bi-partisan agreement, and for further moves in the right direction beyond.

What I can’t quite figure out, though, is how the kind of assessment of college value that the president spoke about is actually supposed to be done. Simply put, the sorts of student-level data required to make it possible in the form Obama seemed to have in mind do not exist. In fact, their collection is actually prohibited by a federal law enacted in 2008, thanks to a misguided coalition of defenders of the status quo in higher ed on the left and opponents of government information-gathering (even about where government money goes, it seems) on the right. 

Trying to produce the sort of highly consequential assessment the president talked about using the incomplete and inadequate aggregate data we have now would not only be useless, it could be actively counterproductive, giving a stamp of approval to misleading and easily manipulated information. We know shockingly little about what our student loan system pays for, and indeed about what our higher-education system does and does not achieve. There is some serious state-level data in some places (which, oddly, the federal government has in many cases paid to collect), but it’s quite limited because it tends not to track outcomes across state lines. Some members of Congress (most notably Marco Rubio, Ron Wyden, and to some degree Eric Cantor) have talked about pressing for significantly more transparency in higher-ed, but these efforts have not gotten far.   

If the president is talking about changing the law and enabling the collection of student-unit records for student-loan recipients, I think that would be a great idea—but lots of people on both the left and the right (including, I would wager, most members of Congress) would think otherwise. If that’s not what he’s talking about (and it does not seem to be, based on the sorts of data the White House suggests would be part of the new scorecard he envisions), then it’s just not clear what his proposals could really accomplish. The data we now have would not be an appropriate foundation for the kind of link between federal higher-ed funds and college value that the president has in mind.

What he has in mind strikes me as a pretty good, on the whole, but it would require more information on what federal higher-ed money actually buys than he has so far proposed to collect or compile, and more than colleges would want to provide.

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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