Phi Beta Cons

Presidential Nudge

Higher education faces a crisis stemming from outrageous tuition, disastrous student debt, the diploma’s declining value in the marketplace, and the loss of any conceivable core curriculum. So what does the U.S. president do? He has a “feel-good summit.” That’s what Inside Higher Ed called it.

The nominal topic was how to increase low-income students’ access to college and help them achieve academic success. In order to be allowed to attend the summit, college presidents had to pledge new commitments to these goals. For example, to get her invitation, Carol Folt, chancellor of UNC–Chapel Hill, promised an additional $8 million ($4 million to increase the

Chancellor’s Science Scholars” and $4 million in more student advising). Once that was done, everyone was friendly — even though the president has earned the ire of college presidents for threatening to rate schools on a list of his preferred measurements. As the Chronicle of Higher Education said, “The summit was structured around a series of panels and small-group discussions in which attendees touted their own efforts to expand access and praised one another’s.”

I don’t know what bothers me the most about this summit but here are a few things: First, the federal government shouldn’t  be in this business, anyway. Nor should the president be pushing the agenda of increasing attendance in college, when there are too many students now who shouldn’t be there. He shouldn’t use threats to get his way — as with his college-rating system –and he shouldn’t use “nudges” (such as this pay-to-play invitation). And the college presidents look ridiculous as they pander to the president, to the public, and to one another.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...