Those urging Democrats and Republicans to reach consensus more often should be careful what they wish for. The higher-education policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, for example, have had much in common: They have been equally simpleminded, equally unhelpful, and equally intrusive.
Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s education secretary, sought to require every college and university in the country to create massive databases that would allow the federal government to track all students’ academic whereabouts and performance. She also sought to require mandatory acceptance of transfer credits across public and private institutions, ignoring differences in quality and academic rigor. Both policies were shot down by Congress.
Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, has sought to regulate what constitutes a “credit hour” and define acceptable ratios of college costs to future income — an oversimplification of higher education’s purpose, which is only partly workforce development. Congress is working on legislation to shoot that down, too.
The federal government has a right to demand quality and accountability from colleges and universities, even private ones. It invests billions of dollars in student loans and aid every year. But its ham-handed efforts to measure outcomes are not likely to do the job.