In the State of the Union and again in a speech at the University of Michigan last Friday, President Obama laid out a new higher education agenda. As I wrote at The New Republic, it’s an ambitious and welcome plan that’s important less for what policies are likely to pass Congress in an election year (few) and more for setting the parameters of future debate. Naturally, the higher education lobby hates it, because that’s what lobbies paid to protect incumbent interests in accountability-free government money are paid to do. I also note that Chronicle blogger Claire Potter, aka Tenured Radical, hates it too, in a way that, while not very convincing, is interesting to examine.

Potter says that “Obama is proposing to create a larger pot of money to withhold from institutions and systems that have not implemented neoliberalism quickly enough.” I don’t work in academia, so I’m always puzzled by the habit of argumentation via vague accusations of “neoliberalism.” Most people don’t live in a world where this idea is commonly understood to be on par with “fascism” as an insult by definition. More importantly, it doesn’t make any sense as a criticism of Obama’s higher education policies. Colleges and universities already compete for students in a market environment. As Jon Chait notes, Obama’s higher education agenda is part of a larger approach to reforms that “tackle vital goods that lie in the gray area between the marketplace and the government.” As with health care, he’s trying to wrestle prices under control in a mixed public/private market so more services can be provided to people who otherwise can’t afford to pay for them. How, then, does Obama’s proposal to enact stronger federal regulation of an existing market-driven industry constitute advancement of the dastardly neoliberal agenda? Isn’t it the opposite of that?

Potter notes a recent White House meeting on college costs and asserts that ”the Obama administration did not invite anyone to the table who actually does research on education — only nonprofits who specialize in assessing what bang corporate America is getting for the student buck.” In this, she’s referring to the non-profit Delta Cost Project, which uses existing government data to analyze long-term trends in college spending. What, exactly “corporate America” has to do with their work, I have no earthly idea. Like “neoliberalism,” this just feels like a rote catchphrase meant to push readers’ ideological buttons and not an actual critique based on logic or facts. Potter continues:

I will tell you what is wrong with the administration’s education non-policy. Among other things: The most onerous cost for educational institutions is health care. A real education policy will propose to the states that they lift current regulations that prohibit private institutions from combining with each other, and with state higher education systems, to bargain for lower health insurance rates.

I don’t know if co-bargaining for lower health insurance rates is a good idea (it sounds like one) but it’s passing strange to begin a critique of Obama’s education policies by complaining about his inattention to health care costs. One, because education speeches should be about education, and two, because Obama gambled his presidency on a massive effort to reduce health care costs. Next:

A real education policy would look at the massive endowments and tax dollars that go to college sports rather than college education.

I’m on board with Taylor Branch and the big-time college sports abolitionists. But policies don’t “look at” things. They do things. Should the federal government be telling colleges they’re not allowed to spend money on sports programs? Then:

A real education policy would point out that it is the mania for cutting taxes at the state level that allowed state legislatures to cut education budgets and put a higher burden on students.

Again, right there with you in on state tax policy. But again: policies don’t “point out” problems. They fix them, or not. We live in a federal system of government with states that have democratically elected lawmakers who pass tax policy and so forth. Does Potter want to change that? Or does her litmus test for real education policy involve the President complaining about non-education policies over which he has no control? Continuing:

A real education policy would point out that federal student loan policy favors private sector profits over the fiscal interest of college graduates and their parents.

Does Potter not realize the Obama administration pushed a massive overhaul of the student loan system through Congress almost two years ago, one specifically designed to favor the interests of college graduates and their parents over private sector profits?

A real education policy would not put the entire burden of simplifying the college financing process on overburdened admissions and financial aid offices. When was the last time the President or Secretary Smartypants looked at any application document issued by the federal government or a bank, much less a student loan application?

Secretary Smartypants? Who, exactly, is supposed to be persuaded by juvenile name-calling? Plus, if you’ve ever seen Arne Duncan speak, you know that he really doesn’t come across as a know-it-all. This doesn’t even make sense as juvenile name-calling. Meanwhile, the Department of Education is hard at work on net price calculators and FAFSA simplification and other measures. It could do better. But if you think they’re leaving it all to college financial aid offices, you’re just not paying attention.

A real education policy would point out that students have to take out loans because their parents’ wages, and particularly working class wages, have been dropping across the board since the 1980s. It would also point out that this phenomenon has something to do with other neoliberal policies that have destroyed unions and sent manufacturing abroad.

See above re: neoliberalism and the difference between pointing out and actual policy. And about education policy being about education. Which doesn’t mean the administration shouldn’t be working on jobs, middle class wages, labor, and manufacturing. But Obama is working on those things, too. In fact, he went on about them in the State of the Union and again in the speech last Friday. “So our first step is rebuilding American manufacturing,” he said. During the higher education speech!

A real education policy would talk about education for chrissakes and not be utterly and completely absorbed with taking up the time of actual educators with “assessments” and “outcomes.”

The president did not use either one of those words in his speech. “Assessment” also appears nowhere in the policy blueprint the White House released along with the speech. “Outcomes” comes up a few times, in incendiary phrases like “the next breakthrough strategy that will boost higher education attainment and student outcomes.” A little jargony, I’ll grant. But complete absorption? Nah. “Outcomes” is just a succinct but boring way of saying “the extent to which students succeed and and prosper in their lives and careers after leaving college.” Should we not care about those things?

A real education policy would point to the crisis in academic labor as a crucial factor in students not being able to get the courses they need to fulfill their major requirements.

Is that even true? I thought the crisis in academic labor involved the steady decline in tenure track jobs, which is indeed a problem. But shouldn’t it be easier to fill course sections with low-paid contingent faculty with few rights? To be clear, I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I just don’t understand the logic here. Finally, the piece wraps up along these lines:

Free market “lite” policies are still free market policies, Mr. President. The cost of higher education, and access to higher education, will not be addressed until the federal government and the states come to terms with what used to be common knowledge in both political parties: education is an investment. It is not a for-profit enterprise. It does not necessarily show measurable returns on that investment. It is something on which a nation agrees to lose money so that it has functioning, productive citizens down the road.

I reiterate my confusion about more government regulation of a market being criticized as pro-free market. More importantly, the above translates to policymakers as “You people are idiots, now give us more money and stop asking questions.” Which is probably why college professors like Tenured Radical aren’t at the table when policy is made.

[Cross-posted at The Quick & the Ed]

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Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.