The Fiscal Year 2015 $3.9 trillion budget document from the Obama Administration includes a request of $68.6 billion in discretionary funds for the Department of Education, up $1.3 billion from 2014 funding. This excludes a great deal of mandatory spending on entitlements, including student loan costs/subsidies, some Pell Grant funding, and some other types of financial aid. (Mandatory spending is much harder to eliminate than discretionary funding, as illustrated by this helpful CBO summary.) The budget is also a reflection of the Administration’s priorities, even if many components are unlikely to be approved by Congress. For a nice summary of the Department of Education’s request, see this policy brief from the New America Foundation.

On the higher education front, the Obama budget implies that accountability will be a key priority of the Department of Education. The Administration made two key requests in this area: $10 million to fund continued development of the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) and $647 million for a fund to reward colleges that enroll and graduate Pell recipients. There was a holdover request for $4 billion in mandatory funds for a version of Race to the Top in higher education, but few in the higher education policy community are taking this plan seriously.

The $10 million for PIRS would go toward “further development and refinement of a new college rating system” (see p. T-156). This request is a signal that the Administration is taking the development of PIRS seriously, but the $10 million in funds suggests that large-scale additional data collection is unlikely to happen in the near future. It is also unlikely that the federal government will work to audit IPEDS data for the rating, something that I called for in my recent policy brief on ratings. Even if the specific $10 million request for PIRS is not acted upon, the Department of Education will use other discretionary funds to move forward.

The $647 million request for College Opportunity and Graduation Bonuses, if approved, would provide bonuses to colleges that are successful in enrolling and graduating large numbers of Pell recipients. I view this as a first attempt to tie federal funds to college performance using metrics that are likely to be in PIRS. I would be surprised if any Pell Grant funds get reallocated through college ratings except for perhaps a handful of very low-performing colleges, but it is possible to get some additional bonus funds tied to ratings.

I had a poll on a blog post a couple weeks ago asking for readers’ thoughts of the likelihood that PIRS would be tied to student financial aid dollars by 2018. The majority of the respondents gave this less than a 50% chance of happening, and I am inclined to agree as well. The Administration’s budget priorities suggest a serious push toward tying some funds to performance, although it is worth emphasizing that a future Congress and President must agree.

What are your thoughts of the Obama Administration’s higher education budget, particularly about accountability? If you have any comments to share, please do so and continue the conversation!

[Cross-posted at Kelchen On Education]

Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is data manager of the Washington Monthly College Guide.