Obama’s Higher Education Agenda May Lead to Expanded Federal Role

Almost a year after assuming leadership, the administration of Barack Obama has taken on enormous tasks in confronting the recession that has gripped the U.S. economy. Americans have watched tentatively as the president has extended federal powers into handling corporate bailouts, overseeing the rehabilitation of banks and General Motors, laying the groundwork for reshaping national energy and climate change policy, and leading the charge for national health care reform.

Experts say the administration’s ambitious approach to federal intervention and national policy reforms has proven no less determined in what it has prescribed for American higher education. Last February, Obama announced to a joint session of Congress that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” Introducing a national community college initiative this past July, Obama invoked the lofty legacy of federal involvement in U.S. higher education.

“Time and again, when we have placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result…. That is what happened when President (Abraham) Lincoln signed into law legislation creating the land grant colleges, which not only transformed higher education but also our economy. That is what took place when President (Franklin) Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, which helped educate a generation – and usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity,” Obama told an audience at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., during the announcement of the American Graduation Initiative.

Scholars, academic administrators and higher education policy officials have largely interpreted the administration’s pronouncements, more than $100 billion in education stimulus funding and the community college-focused American Graduation Initiative, as markers of a significant shift in federal higher education policy and the making of a credible push for an expanded federal role in American higher education. It’s also significant that the “Race to the Top” initiative, the administration’s K-12 education reform effort, focuses on school districts getting more students prepared for college, experts note.

“The federal role has been traditionally to support economic access through need-based student aid, through loans and grants, and through some categorical programs. But it’s not had a policy role, particularly around the agenda of (college) completion and increasing overall attainment,” says Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.

“They’re talking about more access, more degree completion. It’s a tremendously important extension of where the federal government has been historically.”

Adds Dr. Michael McPherson, president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation and co-author of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, “Shifting the goal to not just getting in, but getting through, or ‘crossing the finish line’ does suggest some adjustments in how education programs will work.”

“I don’t think that means some spectacular changes in the federal role, but (means) ways of rewarding institutions or states that have greater success and ways of weaving together research efforts and demonstration programs to try to find things that work in getting people through school successfully,” McPherson says. “These, I think, are roles that are going to expand for the federal government.” 

Historic Interventions

The establishment of the GI Bill in World War II’s aftermath is commonly regarded as a highly acclaimed federal intervention and marked the federal government’s pioneering move into facilitating college access. The 1940s through the 1960s saw the federal government substantially ramp up scientific research at major universities, helping make U.S. institutions the world’s premier research universities.

“The federal role in higher education, in terms of financial aid, really started with the GI Bill right after World War II. The financial aid role, both with the GI Bill and eventually the Pell Grant, was to provide more access, or opportunity, to go to college,” says Stan Jones, president of the Washington-based Complete College America organization.

Jones says the move by the Obama administration to develop and implement a college-completion agenda is “substantial and unprecedented.” He believes the agenda has considerable symbolic cache that may help administration officials justify the lofty rhetoric, including comparisons to the GI Bill, they have used in talking about national college-completion goals. 

“(Obama’s) call for at least one year of college for everybody moves up the threshold from public education being kindergarten through grade 12 (to) raising that threshold to include one year of college for everybody. I think that’s symbolic,” Jones says.

Dr. Carl Bankston, chair of the Tulane University sociology department, says it’s notable that Obama has urged making the attainment of at least one year of postsecondary education in addition to having a high school diploma the education standard for all Americans. It’s significant for a federal executive to lead the effort in establishing a standard that may become as much of a social and cultural norm as one meeting economic needs for American prosperity, according to Bankston.

“It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that earning a high school diploma was seen as a universal goal for American citizens. I don’t know that federal officials took the lead on helping make that a social norm,” says Bankston, an expert in the sociology of education.

Bankston, however, characterizes Obama’s college-completion agenda as “less a matter of changing the relationship of the federal government to higher education than continuing a line that has been in progress through various administrations, both Democratic and Republican, that is increasing the federal role in education at all levels.”

“(What) you might call the ‘federalization’ of education is something that’s been happening at least since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and probably you can date it back to the late 1950s when the Eisenhower administration first started investing in education,” Bankston says. “It seems to me, in general, less of a change than continuing along a line of ever-increasing involvement by the federal government.”

With community colleges taking center stage in the administration’s college-completion agenda, experts say this emphasis represents a radical shift in federal higher education policy, which many characterize as having been traditionally focused on four-year institutions. In the proposed American Graduation Initiative, the administration wants to spend $12 billion on community colleges over the next decade to support facility improvements, work-force development programs and an expansion of online instruction so students have access to courses whenever they need them.

“The fact that (the administration is) setting federal goals and national goals is in itself innovative. They’ve also been the first administration that I can think of ever that has put their highest-funding priority around the institutions that serve the majority of low-income students,” Wellman says. “One of the biggest performance problems we’ve got in higher education, which isn’t talked about enough, is the huge degree of stratification. We have a handful of rich institutions and an awful lot of poorly financed institutions that serve the majority of the students.”

In recent years, community college certificate and degree completion rates as well as transfer rates have come under national scrutiny. Nearly 60 percent of students entering four-year institutions earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, while only 31 percent of students who begin their academic careers at public community colleges complete either an associate or a bachelor’s degree in six years, according to U.S. Education Department data. With community colleges typically seeing lags in degree completion rates when compared to four-year institutions, public officials and foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, have stepped up efforts to improve the capacity of community colleges to better help their students attain educational success.

“There needs to be a focus on how community colleges can improve. One of the biggest problems, and leaders of community colleges will tell you, is the very low success rate,” McPherson says “I would emphasize with the evidence we have (in Crossing the Finish Line) that as community colleges work now, it’s a pretty tough road to start from a high school level education and make it to a bachelor’s degree after starting at a community college. The evidence is that people with the same background and qualifications have a lot better shot at actually completing a bachelor’s degree starting out at the four-year school.”

The Long Journey Ahead

Experts say community colleges have not occupied the policy spotlight. Dr. William Kirst, professor emeritus of business administration and education at Stanford University, says the shift to putting community colleges in the forefront of the administration’s college-completion agenda reverses the emphasis of federal policy away from four-year institutions. Since World War II, the emphasis on college access and developing research capacity has favored public four-year institutions over public two-year schools, according to Kirst.

“Community colleges have been politically weaker than the four-year colleges. They don’t have as powerful a lobby four-year and research institutions have traditionally had in Washington,” Kirst says. 

Dr. Lorelle Espinosa, director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, has cautioned that policy officials, researchers and advocates should focus on not losing sight of the college access issue. U.S. higher education institutions are facing a future where they will have to recruit students who are of first-generation, low-income or minority backgrounds, she notes.

“I worry there’s too much dichotomizing of access from college success in the discussions of policy and research officials. There will be a challenge facing higher education in making sure access remains a high priority given that we’re seeing significant demographic shifts in the coming years,” Espinosa says. 

Enormous political challenges face the Obama administration over its higher education policy priorities. Experts worry whether administration officials will be able to develop an effective political strategy that builds political consensus in Congress and among state officials around the effort to focus on college completion as well as strengthen community colleges. 

“I think the single most important thing (the Obama administration) can do is to extend the conversation to the policy leaders in the states who are going to have to drive this bus,” Wellman says. 

One early test for the Obama administration will be whether it can persuade Congress to pass the Student Assistance and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA).  Major funding for Obama proposals would be made available through SAFRA, which has passed the House and was pending before the Senate earlier this month. SAFRA includes $3 billion for a college access and completion fund along with $2.5 billion for community college facilities and $630 million in other grants to community colleges.

Other measures include $2.5 billion for minority-serving institutions and a $1,350 increase in the maximum Pell Grant over the next decade. To finance these investments, SAFRA would do away with bank-generated student loans in favor of less expensive, government-backed Direct Loans. Officials have estimated the federal government can save $9 billion annually by eliminating loan subsidies for private banks.

SAFRA’s passage will be critical, but the administration’s long-term success in higher education policy will depend on how well it builds a consensus with states on making college completion a high priority, Wellman says.

“I think this is a national agenda not just a federal agenda. And using the federal government to define the terms of a national conversation is hugely important,” Wellman says. “As far as I am concerned, I think that the United States has been complacent and not been paying attention to what our country needs by way of increased attainment.”