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Obama and Higher Ed. Affordability, Accountability, and Technology

The recent 2012 State of the Union address has received a great deal of attention for its emphasis on improving college affordability and holding colleges and universities accountable for contributing directly to that effort. However, to get the administration’s vision for the role of technology in addressing the affordability challenge, we need to look at an array of policies and proposals put forward over the last couple of years.

In last week’s address to Congress, President Obama again stressed the importance of higher education to individual and national economic competitiveness, and thus the importance of higher education affordability: “Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” He also once again emphasized the role of federal student aid in keeping higher education affordable. Last year, the President highlighted how ending the guaranteed student loan program and consolidating student lending into the direct loan program financed a major increase in the maximum size of the Pell Grant (from $4,731 in FY 2009 to $5,350 in FY 2010 and $5,550 by FY 2011). This year, he pushed Congress to pass legislation maintaining the current interest rate on student loans, noting that the rate will double in July without such action. He also asked Congress to extend the tuition tax credit and finance the doubling of work-study jobs over the next five years.

However, the 2012 State of the Union address carried with it new admonitions for states to maintain their fiscal commitment to higher education and for colleges and universities to rededicate themselves to containing their costs as key elements in increasing higher education affordability:

“Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid.  We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money.  States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets.  And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.

Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that.  Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly.  Some use better technology.  The point is, it’s possible.  So let me put colleges and universities on notice:  If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.”

President Obama followed these statements a few days later in a speech at the University of Michigan by unveiling proposals to encourage states to maintain higher education funding and to link federal aid to institutional progress in minimizing tuition increases and producing economically viable graduates. On the former, the President put forward the outlines of a $1 billion program that would mirror the incentive grants the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has made to stimulate state elementary and secondary education reform. In the proposed “Race to the Top: College Affordability and Completion” program, grants would “entice state governments to revamp the structure of state financing for higher education, maintain adequate levels of funding for colleges and universities, and help kids graduate on time.”[1] On college and university responsibility for higher education affordability, administration proposals would shift federal campus-based student aid in the form of Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), Perkins Loans, and Work Study toward institutions that:

  1. Establish “responsible” tuition policies in terms of maintaining relatively lower net tuition and/or limiting tuition growth
  2. Provide “good value” by offering educational opportunities that prepare graduates for employment sufficient to repay their student loans
  3. Serve low-income students by enrolling and graduating relatively higher numbers of Pell-eligible students.

The administration would implement this approach by revising the distribution formula for the relevant programs to redirect funding from “schools with rising tuition” to those meeting the identified criteria. To provide institutions with even greater incentive to meet these requirements, the administration also proposed a $10 billion annual increase in campus-based aid, mainly through expanding Perkins Loans. The administration clearly identified its objective for these changes: “Students will receive the greatest government grant and loan support at colleges where they are likely to be best served, and little or no campus aid will flow to colleges that fail to meet affordability and value standards.”[2]

Given this context, what role does the Obama Administration envision for technology in addressing the affordability challenge? To answer this question, it helps to begin with the goals and objectives identified in the U.S. Department of Education National Education Technology Plan, which was released in November 2010. Two of the plan’s five goals have elements that speak to the potential impact of technology on higher education affordability. Goal 5, “Productivity: Redesign and Transform,” directly emphasizes the importance of leveraging technology to improve learning outcomes and the cost-effectiveness with which those greater outcomes are achieved. It stresses the use of technology to improve institutional cost management and enhance collaboration between education sectors on increasing college readiness. It also recommends a transition to competency-based assessment to accelerate the adoption of the flexible, affordable e-learning opportunities.

While not strictly focused on affordability issues, Goal 4, “Infrastructure: Access and Enable,” proposes strategies that target increasing cost-effective access to learning. For example, supporting national broadband access is discussed as crucial to enabling access to e-learning opportunities and resources. Likewise, federal support for the development and use of open educational resources (OER), i.e., courses and other learning resources made freely available in the public domain that users can adapt and repurpose as needed, is advocated as a means to increase affordable access to high-quality learning materials while also spurring further development and adoption of e-learning.

Since the plan’s publication, the administration has worked to advance OER in particular. In addition to holding public briefings like the one provided by Undersecretary of Education Kanter highlighting Obama Administration support of the open resources movement, the administration pushed through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Program. Administered by the U.S. Department of Labor in partnership with ED, TAACCCT provides $2 billion over four years for the development of courses and programs to help workers retrain for high-wage jobs, with grantees required to make any learning resources developed under the program available as OER.

Perhaps most tellingly, the New York Times quoted a number of the participants in the meeting on higher education affordability that President Obama cited in this year’s State of the Union address as saying that “a fundamental rethinking of the traditional model of higher education, making greater, and different, use of technology” was a central part of the discussion. This may indicate that further expansion and evolution of the administration’s thinking on the intersection of affordability, accountability, and technology is yet to come.

[1] Mark Compton, “Everything You Need to Know About President Obama’s Blueprint for College Affordability,” The White House Blog, January 27, 2012:

[2]FACT SHEET: President Obama’s Blueprint for Keeping College Affordable and Within Reach for All Americans,” The White House, January 27, 2012:




Affordability will spur accessibility and completion....

President Obama's push for Congress to pass legislation to maintain the current interests rate on student loans, extend tuition tax credit and finance the doubling of work-study jobs, along with states' efforts to maintain fiscal commitment to higher education and for colleges and universities to continue to commit to contain their costs are incremental baby steps, at least, to curb the affordability problem in the short term.  More needs to be done for long term solution albeit permanent fix.  The beginning of this school year, the college where I work did their part to demonstrate accountability to this effort of holding down costs - tuition rate increased ever so slightly from $125 to $128 while the vast majority of colleges and universities tuition skyrocketed. 

I hope the administration succeeds with its proposals. 

President Obama's inspiring words to hold colleges and universities accountable for the success of students.  Also, that community college should be granted to all families and not seen as a luxury.  Community Colleges not only grant degrees, but certificate of completions from different departments thus strengthening our workforce and providing an opportunity for jobs, I have seen the interest rate hike and the fee take place but the rewards out weigh what is going on in the present.  Education is an investment for everyone, no matter which post-secondary pathway is chosen.