Monday, January 30, 2012


President Obama used the term “value” in outlining the criteria he’d use, if he had his druthers, in allocating Federal funding to higher ed.

First, the obligatory disclaimer: he doesn’t get his druthers very often.  He doesn’t quite seem to get that the Republicans have no intention of letting him succeed at pretty much anything.

That said, though, the idea of looking at “value” is suggestive.  

I’d like to look at the “value” of continued wealth polarization.  Let’s also look at the “value” of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world.  While we’re at it, let’s take a long, hard look at the “value” of wars of choice, the carried interest tax deduction, and HMO’s.  Higher education has its issues, but any objective barometer of “value” would suggest that there’s far more surplus value to be squeezed out of any -- let alone all -- of those than you’ll ever get out of educating people.  

That said, though, I suspect some sectors of higher ed should be more worried than others.

I’ve suggested before that there are really four categories of colleges.  Allowing for the obvious oversimplification, they are:

high prestige, high cost -- Harvard, MIT, Swarthmore

high prestige, low cost -- UC Berkeley, Michigan, UVA

low prestige, low cost -- community colleges, state colleges

low prestige, high cost -- innumerable little private colleges scattered hither and yon, for-profits

Even granting that these are very broad strokes -- I like to think that my own cc punches well above its weight in academic quality, and I have the transfer stats to prove it -- the first three categories strike me as passing the basic “value” test.  The fourth, not so much.  

A standard cynical response would argue that “hither and yon” could be rephrased as “in a host of Congressional districts,” and would suggest that localist political concerns would prevent any real harm from befalling the college in so-and-so’s district.  There’s some truth to that, but it neglects the fact that most Federal financial aid is channeled through students, rather than sent directly to institutions.  While that has predictable and sometimes pernicious effects, it does mean that a blanket change to Federal policy can happen without singling out any particular place.  Lowering the cap on federal student loans, for instance, would hit any college or university that charges above the cap; students would have to decide whether the particular college was worth it.

Over time, I expect that the most viable survival strategy for the endangered sector is to start playing a different game.  Instead of offering an undistinguished bachelor’s degree for a premium price, start experimenting with different kinds of credentials.  (I’m intrigued by the “badges” craze, for instance, and I suspect that it’s just the beginning.)  If I were high up at a struggling private college, I’d seriously consider starting some conversations with the Feds about alternative credentialing and financial aid.  Yes, it’s a break from tradition, but if sticking with tradition involves a fast slide into oblivion, the argument for experimentation is easier to make.  Add value where you can, even if it isn’t where you initially had in mind.

With cost becoming an ever-more-serious consideration, the only way I see that fourth sector surviving is by changing its value proposition.  That may not be the intent of the “reforms,” but I’ll take a happy unintended consequence.  If the veiled threat of oblivion spurs innovation in one sector, and that innovation spreads as it catches on, so much the better.  It wouldn’t be the first time that a problematic idea had a happy outcome.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the “value” of those tax cuts for the one percent...