President Obama has announced a new plan for restructuring higher ed, which represents a collection of some of the worst conservative and “moderate” ideas currently circulating in public policy circles. Although he does recognize the need to control tuition increases and limit student debt, he wants to use a ranking system to punish schools that fail to meet economic-based goals. Moreover, his plan promotes the use of MOOCs, competency-based education, and credit for non-educational activities, and while he argues that we must concentrate on student outcomes, none of these goals deal with actual learning or teaching.
As I argue in my book, the only solution to the problems facing American higher education is an integrated strategy centered on improving instruction and reducing expenses by forcing schools to fund their primary missions of education and research. I have also shown that we are already spending enough money through federal, state, and institutional aid and tax breaks to make all public higher education free to the students, but what we lack is a belief in our ability to do something big and comprehensive.
Our current neoliberal problem is that conservatives have been successful in labeling any moderate liberal program as socialistic, and so, liberals tend to present conservative policies as liberal solutions. Since both sides are afraid of proposing any real, comprehensive policies, the result is the presentation of small, short-term fixes. Moreover, due to the liberal belief in the goodness of the meritocracy, they fail to see how the wealthy have turned the meritocracy into a new aristocracy. For example, Obama loves to affirm how the system must work because someone like him has made it to the top. Thus, instead of seeing himself as a rare exception, he believes that the exception proves the rule, and therefore there is no reason to address the fundamental flaws of our education system.
When I made a presentation last year at the White House on how to control college costs, my main point was that the federal government should tie funding to increasing the number of full-time faculty, decreasing the size of classes, and increasing the percentage of institutional budgets spent on direct instruction and research. In other words, all reforms of higher education have to begin with a focus on the core mission of these institutions; unfortunately, my arguments fell on deaf ears, but let us hope that as the problems get worse, the solutions get more radical.