Can Washington Help What Ails American Higher Ed?

Ann McClure's picture
Thursday, December 8, 2011

At a meeting with college leaders this week, President Barack Obama was looking for ideas. Amid record budget deficits, can Washington actually do anything to help make American colleges less expensive and more productive?

Those related challenges are front and center for everyone from Occupy protesters to business leaders concerned about American competitiveness. And expert opinion on what Obama โ€” or any president โ€” can do about the problem varies, from very little to quite a lot.

Where you stand depends on where you think the cause lies โ€” with inexorable economic forces that make it virtually inevitable college costs will rise faster than inflation, or with inefficiencies and shortcomings in higher education itself that government policy could help correct.

The administration does have one model of which it's proud. That's the $4.3 billion "Race to the Top" fund for K-12 education reform, which used a relatively small slice of stimulus dollars as a prize to nudge dozens of states competing for it into reforms like expanding charter schools and developing common standards. The structure also helped at least dilute, though not avoid, criticism that Washington was stepping on the states' toes.

Could something comparable be in the works to push reform in higher education? Race to the Top started in 2009, when the administration was looking for smart ways to spend stimulus dollars. These days, new spending is out of the question.

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