Now that the election is over, state officials and the citizens they serve are looking ahead to the next four years. Education experts agree that our economic future is tightly linked to our education system. And the Democrats hope that we “out-educate” the rest of the world with quality public colleges and universities.
Prior to the election madness, Obama set a goal for college attainment. He wants to put the United States back on top and have the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. His higher education policy during his first term and his promises with regard to education going forward all lead back to this goal. But education policy ultimately lies with the states. What do Obama’s policies mean for key states like Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland and Washington?
The first four of those states (Florida, Georgia, Idaho and Maryland) belong to an organization called Complete College America. CCA is a non-profit organization that is working with states to increase college completion. They argue that focusing on college access and enrollments without an equal focus on college completion does students a disservice. They also emphasize that the burden of education problems rests with the states.
In accordance with the goals set by CCA, the member states have set individual goals for college completion. For instance, according to the Idaho State Board of Education’s Chief Communications and Legislative Officer Marilyn Whitney, Idaho hopes that by 2020, 60 percent of citizens ages 25-34 will have a postsecondary degree or certificate. In order to meet this goal, Idaho’s higher education institutions need to produce at least 20,000 degrees and certificates every year.
Complete College America has appealed to the government on several occasions with ideas for how to reach Obama’s college completion goal. In an address to the House earlier this year, CCA President Stan Jones asked Congress to reward states that are trying to implement innovative strategies to boost college completion. He also asked Congress to standardize data reporting methods so that every state is reporting the same kinds of data, measured in the same way, which would increase accountability for higher education institutions.
Washington adopted their Strategic Master Plan for Higher Education, which is designed to span 10 years, in 2008. Bob Burdick, the Washington Student Achievement Council’s Director of Public Relations, revealed that because Washington does not charge its residents any income tax, the recession hit them particularly hard. While Obama is rewarding states whose colleges are keeping cost low, Washington has had to make up for their losses by giving higher education institutions an “unprecedented freedom to raise tuition.” Because of the harsh impact of the recession, Washington may not be in a position to receive some of the incentives Obama is offering states. According to their Strategic Master plan, Washington will see significant gains in college completion rates by 2025.
During his first term, Obama focused primarily on making higher education affordable. Among other things, he created the American Opportunity Tax Credit, expanded the Pell Grant, and invested millions of federal dollars into colleges that have kept tuition affordable. He also kept the interest rate for Stafford loans, the most popular federal loan, at 3.4 percent instead of the proposed jump to 6.8 percent.
What might we see over the next four years?
Permanent American Opportunity Tax Credit. This would allow college students and their families to continue to catch a break.
First in the World Competition. Obama will ask Congress to invest $55 million to invent higher education institutions and non-profit organizations to develop innovations and new strategies to boost college completion rates.
Race to the Top (college version). Obama also wants to take $1 billion and invest it into states that are willing to change the way they do things in order to bring about results.
Community College to Career Fund. This would involve an $8 billion investment in community colleges. Daniel LaVista, the Los Angeles Community College District chancellor, said in a recent call to the media that community colleges are a “bridge between [unemployment] and job placement.” Obama recognizes their strength and wants to reward those who are partnering with businesses and solidifying a pipeline from school to work.
Obama and many of the states have the same goal. They want to increase college completion rates and make college more affordable. In deference to states’ rights, Obama is leaving the specifics of education policy up to them. His role right now is to have incentives in place for states to take steps toward the overall goal. The states involved in Complete College America, including Florida, Maryland, Idaho and Georgia, seem to have aligned their vision with Obama’s. The future for states like Washington, whose financial situations are more precarious, is a little less certain moving forward.