Just as former President Bill Clinton hoped for a house for every citizen, President Barack Obama hopes to open the doors of the nation’s universities to all Americans seeking a degree.
This is an admirable vision to have promised his youth constituency, which has once again helped propel him to victory.
In his first term, Obama achieved partial success in his push to improve access to higher education by increasing Pell Grant funding and keeping student loan interest rates low. However, as part of his latest election platform, the president went further and promised to cut tuition growth in half in the next 10 years.
Since 2001, tuition fees across the U.S. have risen 5.6 percent annually at four-year public universities.
In response, one of Obama’s proposed higher education remedies is a “Race to the Top” competition that holds a $1 billion pot as bait for state governments to effectively keep tuition rates steady, better serve financially needy students and facilitate students’ transition from high school to higher education.
In a similar vein, the president’s “First in the World” competition holds a $55 million incentive to encourage individual universities to model innovative instruction practices on their campuses.
But despite Obama’s emphasis on college affordability, the federal government does not have an effective mechanism with which to incentivize state reinvestment in public higher education.
While the figures cited in Obama’s proposals may sound enormous, they are barely a drop in the bucket compared to public university budgets.
Consider this: These proposals would be enacted and carried out by the U.S. Department of Education, whose discretionary budget totals $68.1 billion. This budget is used to fund K-12 and higher education, and the Department of Education is responsible for supporting more than 64 million students.
To compare, the University of California’s 2009-2010 budget is $20.1 billion, or almost a third of the entire Department of Education’s discretionary funds, making Obama’s offerings seem marginal.
These figures call into question the ability of the federal government to incentivize real change in all 50 states with such comparatively limited funds.
“We’re telling the states, if you can find new ways to bring down the cost of college and make it easier for more students to graduate, we’ll help you do it,” Obama said in a speech at the University of Michigan in January.
But $1 billion divvied up among the “winners” of “Race to the Top” is simply not enough money to set in motion the kind of change Obama envisions.
The fiscal situation of every state is singular to its own economic conditions, tax laws and education initiatives. No single solution can fit the pitfalls and needs of each state, resolve the slipping quality of state education or address the root symptoms of the higher education funding crisis.
A federal incentive will not resolve a state issue ““ it serves more as an attractive talking point than as a long-term solution.
“The United States has no integrated national strategy on higher education. There has never been one,” said UC President Mark Yudof, in a paper titled, “Exploring a New Role for Federal Government in Higher Education.”
In his 2009 report, Yudof suggests that the federal government provide support to individual institutions in order to fill state budget holes, specifically citing the instability of state allocations to the University of California.
“The historic federal roles of access creation, research funding and regulation will not ensure a robust economy in the 21st century. We are at a crossroads,” he said. In the paper, Yudof recognizes the distressed relationship of states and their public education systems. While Yudof suggests a broader federal role should be pursued, such a reshuffling would be an unwieldy undertaking.
A solution to the problems facing state education does not present itself easily. What is clear, however, is that the current “Race to the Top” provides insufficient incentive to catalyze a re-prioritization of state budgets.
Now that the election is over, maintaining support for federal aid programs that directly affect students, like Pell Grants, should remain the president’s priority. Offering comparatively minimal prizes to states and universities will not bring to bear broadly feasible solutions among the nation’s public universities.
Obama’s track record sets him as a champion of student interest, but it remains vital that students better learn to judge the line between rhetoric and reality in politicians’ education proposals.
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