For God, For country, For college, Forever: A Few Thoughts on #ObamasHigherEdPlan

Twas a big day in higher education news yesterday. Barack Obama gave a major speech on college affordability. He laid out several proposals to push down college costs, student loan burdens, and foster higher education innovation. The internet went NUTS! Not really unless you follow all the world’s higher education nerds, as I do. But, it is nuts for a crowd that still encourages panty hose at conferences.

I figured most of the smart people with bigger platforms and higher profiles would cover most of the bases in response to Obama’s plan. And most did. See here, here, and here.

I only have a few things to throw out there.

First, keep in mind that I tend towards structure, organizational analysis and historical context. From that perspective, this kind of intervention was really inevitable. Some have mentioned that this plan would represent a significant reconfiguration of the role of the federal government in higher education. Whether you consider that a cardinal sin or a move in the right direction, it almost certainly represents change.

Obama has proven himself to be a pragmatic policymaker. He is also quite bright. For those reasons, I suspect he, one, has a grasp on the interlocking social processes that are affecting higher education and, two, that he has an eye towards practical concerns. Those interlocking processes are discussed in some analysis, in part. Briefly, I’ll sketch out how I see the macro picture, which I suspect Obama also sees.

The challenges facing higher education are demographic, economic, social, and political. Demographically, the historic expansion of U.S. colleges occurred under a peculiar set of national conditions that are unlikely to continue. You had a large population boom, an expansion of bureaucratic middle class jobs that corresponded with degree production, and a flush national economy that allowed for massive State building projects, like expanding financial aid and public colleges. Almost none of those things are projected to continue or repeat any time soon. There are fewer traditional-aged college students. There are even fewer traditional aged college students with the means to pay for expensive college educations. This demographic contraction has sparked an institutional status competition process. The most elite colleges are largely exempt because they benefit from an historical accumulation of prestige that’s tied up in the nation’s original sin, capitalism, etc. The aspirational prestige class of institutions that were able to charge high tuition for being elite-adjacent are competing for fewer ideal students. Further, they don’t have the sizable financial and social cushion of the Ivies to buffer these changes. If they change their mission to accept more of the fastest growing student demographic — non-traditional students — they jeopardize their relative prestige position among the full-pay tuition elite. Organizations resist that kind of change. Higher education institutions may be particularly resistant because of their significant investment in status markers that require maintenance of their prestige position to justify (and, in many cases, to pay off debts they undertook to finance them e.g. dorms etc.) their tuition.

To finance their competitive run for a dwindling pool of desirable students, aspirational bubble schools have leaned heavily on federal student aid as an incentive program (like Ivy League schools rely upon endowments). At the same time a major ideological shift in the labor market has conditioned workers that they must engage in life long learning to be competitive. This is often presented as a response to technical skillification (yes, I’m making it a word) of the economy. There is little empirical evidence supporting this but politicians on both sides of the aisle refuse to let go of the skills gap myth. I suspect this has lots to do with campaign financing but I digress. The point is, even Obama’s plan draws on the skills gap myth of tomorrow’s 21st century jobs requiring not just more education, but more education forever.

Ideology makes workers individually and morally responsible for pursuing credentials ad infinitum. Not only should we collect badges forever to be of value to employers but to help America beat China and be blessed uniquely by an English-speaking God. For God, for country, for college, forever.  The individual expense of those credentials is justified by the reality of fewer jobs with living wages and work conditions. This premium for good jobs only increases the value of prestigious degrees. In turn, the psychic price of paying any cost for any edge in the labor market becomes rational. The federal aid system becomes the primary way to pay that cost.

However, the financial aid system was not set up to subsidize life course learning for millions of workers. This places some particular pressures on the financial aid system. I suspect Obama knows that and considers, first and foremost, his responsibility is to the integrity of the system that financed the greatest expansion of the middle class in American history.

If there is a problem, or something not yet clear in this plan, it is that it does not address the ideology driving the competition processes that are exerting pressure both on tuition costs and expanding demand on the financial aid system.

Sociology can seem useless in such difficult policy moments. The pragmatic side of me is sensitive to that. We seem good at explaining and less so at fixing. I will take a detour from my usual role to toss out a few things. What sociology does excel at doing is modeling mechanisms that are most sensitive to intervention. I won’t bore you with causal models and such but Obama’s plan considers institutions the primary means of influencing cost, debt, and student behaviors. I’m not sure that is the case. Now, it may be the case that institutions can exert some influence and they are the mechanisms most sensitive the the policies Obama is willing to endorse. Let us not confuse the latter with the former, though.

I agree that an external shock is likely necessary to interrupt the status competition processes. I am not yet convinced this plan is that shock. For sure, institutions are endogenous to status competition and an external shock is, by definition, exogenous. Not to beat a dead economic horse but I don’t know how we get to the core of the problems with higher education without some recognition of how they are tied to larger economic weaknesses. You grade schools so parents can make better choices. OK, but competition for a credential that provides an edge for fewer jobs that Americans want means those grades necessarily become rankings. Rankings have a perverse way of acting back on institutional decisions to maintain the legitimacy of the organization. If you want to rank well the easiest way to do that is to accept well-prepared students, of which there are not enough of for all the colleges who’d wish to have them.

That’s not a slam on measures. It is just an example of where can end up when try to solve an equation for X without working both sides of the equal sign.

The reality is higher education is both expanding and contracting. It’s traditional role is contracting as non traditional demands on it are expanding. There will be change no matter what. Like others, I believe institutions will fold or merge or in some way reduce in overall number. Unlike many others I would hope that contraction doesn’t disproportionately impact institutions that serve the least prestigious students. I especially worry that minority serving institutions and open access colleges are at risk under an undifferentiated ratings system. Yet, I recognize colleges are not blameless. For many reasons, traditional colleges did not (and, perhaps, could not) produce a coherent narrative to counter its repurposing into private sector skills training. For all we talk about a higher education sector there is really no coherent institutional field of highered. There are institutions which are often in competition with each other both individually and between prestige strata. When you are reduced to skills development you are sensitive to weaknesses in the labor market. Thus, here we are.

History suggests Obama’s plan will be less revolutionary than hoped or feared. That’s just not how massive change tends to work. But, whatever parts of his plan become a reality I suspect Obama’s plan is likely to become another tool to further bifurcate higher education institutions into “real” college and “everybody else”. I am hopeful about mechanisms that finally pull the for-profit sector into an overall administration of guidelines. I’ve argued before that the political and cultural enclosure of them into “not real college” ultimately conditions for-profits’ ideal student as ones least likely to have the means or capital to ascertain the high risk of expensive, low-prestige degrees. Pulling for-profits into the fold and making them peers of traditional colleges might address that. Comparative studies of places like New Zealand where for-profits have been integrated into a centralized higher education system gives some idea of how this could work against unequal patterns of the enrollment of vulnerable students among for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

But to the hope that this plan will break the death grip of private elite colleges on the prestige economy that is being driven by economic status competition processes? I’m less hopeful. First, Obama’s plan reflects the rational choice models of every economic education paper and disruption innovation published and pushed over the past decade. There’s not much in them or this plan that seems willing to engage or even reflect upon the social processes driving the game. Second, money talks. When you see MOOCs offered as an innovation in Obama’s plan you’re seeing a reflection of the interests of the wealthy that both favor those models and that can afford a $25,000 a plate political fundraiser. And, finally, Obama hasn’t shown a lot of interest in stratification as anything but mostly functional. I had a moment listening to his speech on the middle class a few months ago. Again, this is a smart, educated guy. I believe he’s read Adam Smith, Olin Wright, Julius Wilson etc just as most scholars have. In that speech I heard an answer to a sociology comps question: is it race or is it class? I think Obama considers the problems of race, at the group and structural level, largely a function of class. That’s not insignificant. That means one can absolutely consider individual rational choice models of education delivery and funding as a social prescription for inequality. If you fix the unfair part of inequality you can have good, functional stratification. That’s an ideological position. I think that’s Obama’s. And I think that a lack of policy reflection on that ideology precludes any policy considerations that assume a different ideology.

That’s why you may never see a suggestion that something like a universal basic income may drive down tuition costs and student loan debt by increasing competition for labor. With a choice between a living wage and a high cost degree, many might choose work over the status competition process of prestige chasing. Similarly, we don’t see a grand vision of State building projects like financing innovative public higher education models. Or, my crazy fantasy of a national jobs program, the center piece of which would be a national data collection program to rival tech’s big data. Such a program trains people — both young and older workers — for these promised 21st jobs, pays them while doing it, contributes better data to public policy, and is an indirect UBI program that increases competition for labor. Risky and crazy, I know. The risk of such projects has historically been best suited to State projects but, again, not when you are thinking in rational choice models. That takes both a functioning congress and some vision of a social, a society, a State and a public good.

And that’s not where we are even if the conditions suggest its where we most need to be.

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