This past August at the State University of New York, Buffalo, President Obama made a familiar offer: “major new reforms,” this time in higher education, “that will shake up the current system.” The New York Times described it as a plan “to shame universities into holding down prices.”
Obama’s remarks were an overture to what will become a major campaign to transform higher education through three measures: instituting a ratings system and performance funding for federal student aid; encouraging technological innovation and competition; and mitigating student debt.
If the plan sounds familiar, it’s because they've played this tune before.
Obama’s college initiative borrows its mindset and policy measures largely from Race to the Top (RTTT), the 2010 federal education bill in which states competed for grants available to those that implemented several reforms: linking standardized test results with rewards and sanctions for teachers and schools, enacting Common Core academic standards, raising state charter school limits, and generally revamping huge swaths of their school systems.
Like RTTT, the plan relies on a set of neoliberal beliefs about the economic role of educational institutions and the compliant nature of those who attend and staff them. This ideology has blossomed in policy circles. Even in 2011 Bill Gates was wondering, “Is there any criteria under which state funding would favor those that have the higher graduation rates over the ones that don't?”
But as Obama seeks to bring this perks-and-penalties model into higher education, RTTT’s detractors are multiplying. A devastating recent analysis by policy group Bigger, Broader Approach to Education concluded, “At a basic level, there is a disconnect between factors that drive achievement gaps and the policy tools RTTT promotes to close them.”
Still, Congress is warming up for another whack at the Higher Education Act, and its current proposals seem molded from the same clay as RTTT. The combination of punitive accountability measures, fledgling technological ventures and deregulation stands poised to alter higher education as drastically it has K-12 education. Yet their affinities have yet to be teased out.
Here are six ways neoliberal education reform is creeping onto the college landscape.
1) Misdiagnosing the root problems.
While peddling the massive reforms of Race to the Top, the administration convinced America of an ailment called “failing schools.” Arne Duncan warned that our students were “treading water” in international assessments. He lamented, “Too many administrators are unwilling to close failing schools.” At the center of this morass were “ineffective teachers,” coddled by tenure and free from all accountability.
Mismanagement and poor teaching do exist, but the performance of US students is less a function of poor schools than unprecedented poverty. Analyses of international test data show that the one-in-five American students raised in poverty depress our otherwise admirable test scores. The OECD’s most recent report noted, “Socio-economic disadvantage translates more directly into poor educational performance in the United States than in other countries.” The fault lines of inequality and poverty define the landscape of educational achievement.
These inequalities pervade higher education as well. A charmed sliver of the undergraduate population attends elite colleges and graduates at passable rates. Meanwhile, masses of students attend middling schools, graduate occasionally, and struggle to turn their degrees into gainful employment.
Tuition has risen at twice the rate of inflation while undergraduate instruction has become the province of adjunct professors and grad students. Student debt averaging $35,000 shackles the typical college graduate.
To be sure, something is rotten in the state of higher education. But cost is the symptom, not the disease. Obama sells his plan largely on the premise that tuition costs have risen beyond reasonable limits, so colleges need to be rapped on the knuckles to mitigate them. But why exactly have costs risen?
In his book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free, Bob Samuels identifies several culprits. State spending on education has contracted by an average 28% in the last five years. Federal tuition-based tax credits increasingly benefit the upper-middle-class. And at a fundamental level, tuition simply follows the currents of the market, with rates based on “what people are willing to pay and what similar schools are charging, rather than on their real costs.” This is what Cornell professor Ronald Ehrenberg calls a “winner-take-all” higher-ed ecosystem: “an arms race of spending” to build gleaming new facilities staffed with star professors, driving costs up everywhere.
Laying out his proposal, the President implied that state cuts in higher-ed funding and too few colleges “working to figure out how do we control costs” have driven tuition up. These are hardly the only factors.
Just as in Race to the Top, the administration has taken a delicate, multivariate problem rooted in larger class structures and sheared it of any nuance. They rely instead on a business-inspired approach that seeks to replace what’s human in institutions with data systems and pecuniary incentives. We’re left with a few pat solutions best delivered in Obama’s chuckling-huckster persona: “What we want to do is rate them on who's offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”
2) Pushing accountability through perks and penalties.
In 2005, a pair of MIT professors and their colleagues designed some experiments to determine how monetary incentives influence decision-making. They had participants play cognitively demanding games with rewards for top performers. In the US experiments, undergraduate guinea pigs could win a weekend’s drinking allowance, about $50.
In India, the highest prize was “approximately equal to half of the mean yearly consumer expenditure in the village,” about $50. The researchers found that in most tasks, “higher incentives led to worse performance.” When tasks required “even rudimentary cognitive skill,” larger rewards “led to poorer performance.” In his book Drive Daniel Pink surmises, “Carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.”
RTTT and its higher-ed counterpart both rely in the main on blunt perks and punishments to address the knottiest socio-cultural issues in our society. Designing safe, enriching schools with a dearth of resources, graduating millions of young people straddled with debt: these are hellishly complex endeavors.
RTTT awarded points to states that created data systems to compensate “effective” faculty, and remove “ineffective” teachers and principals, based largely on standardized testing. Schools that test poorly become candidates for “turnaround,” a euphemism for liquidating staff, and in most cases, roping in a charter operator.
Test-based teacher-evaluation has so far eluded any empirical justification. Researchers with the Educational Policy Institute conclude, “There is broad agreement among statisticians, psychometricians, and economists that student test scores alone are not sufficiently reliable and valid indicators of teacher effectiveness.” Multiple studies found that New York’s evaluation pilot program showed “little impact on student proﬁciency or school environment.”
Obama’s college ratings initiative doesn’t have standardized tests to lean on, so the president offered other guideposts: graduation rates, tuition costs, post-college earnings, number of Pell grant recipients enrolled. According to these measures, “students attending high-performing colleges could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans.”
This kind of performance funding has been tried before. Tennessee has been allocating funding based on graduation rates since 1979, as the White House fact sheet noted. But while the newest iteration of Tennessee’s initiative was lauded as a “game-changer,” a 2011 study from Columbia’s Teachers College found “the research literature does not provide firm evidence that performance funding significantly increases rates of remedial completion, retention or graduation.”
3) Gaming the ratings.
There’s ample evidence that these accountability measures will fall short of stated aims. But what’s more, there’s reason to believe they’ll actively muck things up.
In a 1976 paper on the impacts of planned social change, social scientist Donald Campbell wrote,
The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
In other words, it’s easier to change numbers than people. This came to be known as Campbell’s Law, by now a well-worn chestnut.
When No Child Left Behind went into effect in 2001, states began dumbing down their standardized tests in order to dodge the fell blade of Adequate Yearly Progress. Much-touted gains made in New York under Mayor Bloomberg, inflated by depressed standards, shrunk from 86.4 percent to 61 percent when those standards were realigned. They plummeted to 26 percent when Common Core-aligned tests were introduced this year. In Washington, D.C., much-ballyhooed achievement gains turned out to be the result of officials quietly fiddling with the achievement benchmarks.
Some consequences of accountability models are less innocuous. Introducing standardized testing regimes correlates with an uptick in disability designations, since students with special needs take modified exams. For vulnerable high schoolers, exit tests increase the probability of future incarceration. In the high-accountability testing era, time spent on test preparation has ballooned while funding for music and art has withered.
If post-college earnings become an accountability metric, colleges would be incentivized to hobble humanities departments and consolidate instruction around lucrative majors like engineering and business. Small liberal arts colleges would face existential perils; already, a gubernatorial committee in Florida has advanced an idea to charge students more for degrees in the humanities.
The best way to game social indicators, of course, remains cheating. A profusion of historic cheating scandals erupted in the years following NCLB and RTTT, most notably the as-yet unresolved cheating debacle under Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C.
The influential college rankings in the U.S. News and World Report are distinguished by perennial reports of manipulation and false reporting. At least five institutions in the last year were caught cooking their books for a ratings system that, with no direct financial levers attached, steers the winds of college applications.
4) "Saving" schools by sacrificing students.
Data-driven measures can distort school systems in more insidious ways, though. If the leading indicator for colleges is graduation rate, it’s likely some fudging and manipulation will result. Low-income students and students of color, who historically graduate at lower rates than their white and more affluent peers, will likely see fewer acceptance letters every spring.
In fact, exclusionary walls have already begun to rise in response to the steady diminution of state higher-ed contributions. A recent ProPublica report found that over the last two decades, “four-year state schools have been educating a shrinking portion of the nation’s lowest-income students.”
Pegging financial aid to graduation rates will likely exacerbate the pattern. “It's not hard for schools to lower their dropout rates,” wrote the L.A. Times editorial board in response to Obama’s plan. “The cheap and easy way to accomplish this is by accepting the students most likely to graduate…and lowering academic standards so that almost no one flunks.”
Faithfully following performance indicators can disadvantage those in direst need. In K-12 schools closed this year in Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia, the vast majority of those affected were low-income, black and Latino students already facing unequal access to resources and decades of neglect. Only a fraction of students whose schools are shuttered end up attending better-rated ones.
Colleges that enroll the hardest-to-graduate students could be penalized for their students’ demographics. Nationwide, six-year graduation rates are already low—21 percent at public institutions, 51 percent at private schools. Reasons for this are legion, with money playing a prominent role. It’s well established, though, that students of color and of modest means are more likely to drop out. Punishing schools that enroll a greater share of these students, instead of providing greater supports, will compound the problem, hurting schools and students both.
Proponents of the President’s plan might retort that low-income “access” to higher education is an active ingredient in the ratings. But if K-12 education reforms are any guide, colleges will seek to maximize favorable populations before pursuing equitable recruitment. RTTT awarded points to states that added charter schools, but it specified that charters must maintain enrollments “similar to local district student populations, especially relative to high-need students.”
The first wish was granted: charter schools have proliferated wildly. Despite nods to inclusion, though, RTTT hasn’t kept charters from enrolling disproportionately few students with special needs. A recent class-action lawsuit targeted charter schools in New Orleans over uneven enrollment and harsh discipline practices for students with disabilities. In New York, charters enroll about two-thirds the district average of students with special needs. Recent studies have found that a separate stratum of charter schools can exacerbate segregation by race and class within districts.
Given the choice between graduating high proportions of low-income students and screening out needier applicants, colleges will be tempted to pursue the latter. “It’s a common phenomenon in higher education,” writes ProPublica reporter Marian Wang. “Students with less money relegated to institutions with less money.”
5) Privileging “value” in the university.
Obama used the word “value” eight times in his speech to convey his idea of what students ought to demand of higher education—value not in the sense of a moral disposition, but in the “Value Meal” sense. The ratings plan will “help students compare the value offered by colleges and encourage colleges to improve.”
But the president disregarded the staggering number of university classes taught not by tenured, tweed-clad professors but grad students and adjuncts in second-hand cardigans. A prevailing obsession with “value” in higher education would presumably hone in on instructor quality, but unlike RTTT, the administration’s new plan wastes no ink distinguishing between effective and ineffective instructors.
Teachers unions didn’t immediately sense an existential threat from RTTT’s emphases on evaluation and alternate routes to certification such as Teach for America. But in Tennessee, the first big winner of RTTT riches, cause for concern soon arose. Recent legislation has diminished teacher pay, eliminates incentives to pursue further degrees, and ties evaluations to test data.
Faculty advocates so far have been less credulous. But colleges are already veritable market-leaders in capitalizing on cheap labor and minimizing the experience required to be an instructor. Nationally, untenured or contingent faculty members teach a majority of courses in colleges and universities. According to the American Federation of Teachers, adjuncts teach 49 percent of all undergraduate classes. But this total doesn’t include graduate students, who teach 16 to 32 percent of classes at research universities.16
Even in the hallowed halls of Harvard, 57 percent of instructors are adjuncts.
The 75 percent of university instructors who aren’t tenured earn about a third of what their tenured colleagues make. So as the “proletarianization of higher education” advances, we hear stories like that of the near-destitute, 83-year-old adjunct at Duquesne who had a heart attack on the lawn in front of her decaying house. She didn’t have health insurance, and her salary barely topped $10,000.
It bears mentioning that a profusion of untenured instructors may not be fantastic for graduation rates.
No more reassuring for college instructors, adjunct and tenured alike, are the new initiative’s endorsements of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. “Some of these approaches are still being developed,” says Obama’s plan, “and too few students are seeing their benefits.” This is true. These approaches see about 90% of enrollees overall drop out, and when compared with traditional courses, have far fewer completers. The empirical evidence for MOOCs’ efficacy is scarce.
At the beginning of 2013, MOOC powerhouse Udacity teamed up with San Jose State University to deliver courses online. Udacity’s CEO said it would “change the life of Californians,” and touted the plan as a means to expand access, lower costs and drive innovation. The school and company divorced abruptly this July with half the students in online courses failing.
Moreover, massive online courses would denude higher education of its empathetic and interactive nature. Philosophy professors at San Jose State penned an open letter to this effect in response to a social justice course that was being foisted on them. “We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education,” they wrote, “and ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.”
MOOCs have their analog in fully online charter schools, darlings of Jeb Bush, which about 200,000 students now “attend.” These nominally educational entities are multiplying despite graduation rates hovering around 38%, achievement data scraping the bottom, and campaign-donation-driven legislative favors for e-school companies revealed on a semi-regular basis.
As regards labor, both RTTT and its successor share a gesture towards “quality” instruction that’s belied by moves toward non-credentialed, inexperienced teachers and fewer, poorer labor standards.
6) No College Left Behind.
“An outcomes-based culture is rapidly developing amongst policymakers in the higher education sector,” declares a 2012 report sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, “Measuring Value-Added in Higher Education.” With hardly contained delight, they add that this development “mirrors recent trends in the K-12 sector.”
Like RTTT’s progenitor No Child Left Behind, much of the genetic material of higher education reform is drawn from Texas. Just as the apocryphal “Texas Miracle” became the backbone of NCLB’s testing and accountability model, college reforms propagated in Texas have captured the attention of reformers nationwide, with the Gates Foundation playing its usual capo-de-tutti-capi role.
The foundation also funded Compare College TX, an accountability system, and supported—in fact helped inspire—Governor Rick Perry’s $10,000 degree plan. This initiative epitomizes the Republican higher-ed platform, defined by performance funding, value-added measurements and the likely curtailing of state funds.
The foundation’s other forays into higher education—an accountability challenge, numerous nationalcollege completion initiatives, and a series of research papers with consulting firm HCM Strategists made Gates “one of the strongest voices for accountability measures in higher education.” Gates’s $472 million in higher-ed munificence aims “to set an agenda, to help clarify an agenda and rally momentum around an agenda.” That momentum has brought the agenda all the way to the President’s pen.
Those who’ve followed K-12 reforms see the writing on the wall for higher education. The agenda is already set.
For some, however, that agenda’s familial resemblance to Race to the Top and reform patriarch No Child Left Behind is cause for concern. The president of the American Association of University Professors calls it “little more than a version of the failed policy of ‘No Child Left Behind’ brought to higher education.”
But in a sense, NCLB and RTTT are coming to higher education whether these reforms succeed or not. In a Washington Post op-ed this year, a retired high school teacher told college professors, “I want to warn you of what to expect from the students who will be arriving in your classroom.” After bewailing the stultifying effects of high-stakes accountability, he concluded:
Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.
Education observers can discern the sound of K-12 education reform rising in the halls of higher education. The score is the same, as are the composers. And for many students now entering colleges and universities, it’s the only tune they know. But it remains to be seen whether faculty and staff will perform the parts written for them.
They’ll need an alternative. Admirably, Obama’s college initiative takes aim at student debt, but that’s more symptomatic relief. To truly remedy the system, higher education must be understood as a public good, rather than private commodity available only to those who’ll pay the asking price.