failing history

Ezra Klein from the Washington Post wrote a thoughtful piece last week on the connection between the runaway costs of medical care and college tuition. He argues that since these are two goods that people need so badly, there is very little leverage for the consumer and, therefore, no pressing reason for colleges and health care providers to curtail the rapid increase of costs.

Klein also sees a similarity in how the Obama administration plans on making the two industries more accessible to all Americans, namely by moving both from pay-for-service models to pay-for-performance models. Instead of health care providers receiving government subsidies based on the volume of services they provide, the ACA plans to issue subsidies based on the quality of those services. Likewise, Obama wants to change federal funding for colleges from a long-standing model where colleges receive government money based on enrollment to a formula where schools receive money based on quality measurements like graduation rates instead.

The pay-for-performance model for medical care seems like a logical way to discourage unnecessary (and pricey) tests and unproven treatments that have been a driving force behind ballooning medical bills. However, for higher education, the pay-for-performance model isn’t just potentially disastrous; it is guaranteed to wreak havoc on the two-year colleges that Obama champions.

Perhaps President Obama and his Secretary of Education have already forgotten about the ugly consequences of George Bush’s signature education reform. No Child Left Behind is a reform, by the way, that the Obama administration has effectively dismantled based on the damage the law did to schools and students that couldn’t meet its impossible requirements.

For those not intimately familiar with NCLB, the law required schools to improve standardized test scores and graduation rates each year in order to maintain levels of funding tied to student enrollment. In theory, it wasn’t a bad set of ideas, but in practice the law did far more harm than good. Schools focused excessive energy on test preparation for struggling students at the expense average and above average students who could already meet the minimum required scores. The focus on testing also meant far less time for teaching critical thinking and communication skills. Additionally, since graduation/promotion rates factored so heavily into the AYP formula by which schools were measured, teachers were “encouraged” to ensure that their students passed. This inevitably led to a lowering and complete abandonment of educational and ethical standards, allowing even the most unprepared students to matriculate.

It is worth mentioning that NCLB also negatively impacted post-secondary education, albeit indirectly, as colleges and universities became tasked with remediating the children who were indeed left behind. Currently, many states are experiencing a remediation crisis, with up to 40% of incoming college freshman needing remedial math and English classes because they were not adequately prepared by their NCLB-era public schools.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It is inexplicable that Obama is now touting a program for higher education that incorporates the same tragic strategy that compromised NCLB, especially after his administration did away with that strategy in K12 education.  Nevertheless, an emphasis on completion rates at colleges is set to be a key component of Obama’s college improvement plan, and it will trigger an unfortunate series of causes and effects.

First of all, large four-year colleges and universities will simply become more selective. By weeding out students that need remediation and discontinuing remedial classes (which is already happening) in favor of what college presidents vaguely call offering “additional support,” these bigger schools will rid themselves of the students who statistically do not graduate (or graduate on time) at high rates. These at-risk students will then shift to smaller two-year and community colleges which have generous open admissions policies.

Because of open admissions policies, most two-year colleges already struggle with “on-time” graduation rates. With high percentages of unprepared students (in need of remediation) and part-time, non-traditional students who work to support families, it is ridiculous to hold two-year colleges accountable for on-time graduation rates. Yet this is a key part of what Obama is proposing.

According to Obama’s new scorecard for colleges, two-year schools can certainly earn points for their lower tuition costs, but if these same schools are penalized for on-time completion rates well beyond their control, one of two things will happen. Either these colleges will follow the example set by K12 public schools and lower their standards in order to artificially inflate completion rates and maintain funding, or they will maintain academic standards and lose federal funding, forcing them to raise tuition rates. Either way, America loses, be it a less rigorous two-year college system or a less affordable one.

Supporters of the president’s plan may say that it is not an either/or proposition. They will say that schools can keep their funding if they just do a better job of graduating students. Just remember, NCLB proponents said the same exact thing.

Jason Palmer

Jason Palmer

Jason Palmer is a full-time instructor of composition and American literature at a small college in North Georgia. He is also the editor of and regular contributor to The McLean Parlor.