Bloomberg Higher Education Plan Sends Progressive Signal

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla., in January.
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla., in January.

In Democratic circles, higher education policy proposals in recent years have spanned the gamut from pandering and regressive to technocratic and progressive.

As he spends hundreds of millions to catapult his presidential bid, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his own higher education proposals this week and firmly planted his flag in the technocratic and progressive camp.

In brief, Bloomberg called for an investment of $700 billion over 10 years in both public and private colleges to support low-income learners through a mix of an increase in Pell grants, greater state funding, and a move toward income-driven repayment plans. He also called for an end to legacy admissions. He would pay for the ideas through an increase in corporate taxes among other measures.

By focusing his free college policies on the lowest-income students, Bloomberg avoids the free-college-for-all regressive policies of some of his opposition. He further showed his progressive stripes by proposing to support low-income students not just with pricey college tuitions, but also by supporting their other needs like food and transportation, which are significant barriers for low-income students completing college. And taking aim at legacy admissions—no matter how unlikely to pass or how bare the details—should be good for an applause line on the stump.

At the same time, Bloomberg’s commitment to fund states and colleges that implement so-called “evidence-based strategies” to increase completion rates will surely win him plaudits among progressive thinkers. Mind you—these strategies don’t actually have to result in improved outcomes. Just the mere presence of the strategies will suffice.

The challenge with this sort of thinking is that, as my fellow Education Next editor Rick Hess has written repeatedly, although it’s easy for federal rules to tell people to do something, the rules cannot force people to do it well.

What’s more, these sorts of evidence-based plans tend to work on average, but not necessarily in a specific circumstance for a specific set of students who may need different sets of supports. In other words, they give the illusion of supporting outcomes, but they instead fund inputs—various resources and processes—not the actual outcomes themselves.

Bloomberg’s push for further transparency around college outcomes is actually broadly in line with the Trump administration’s own inclinations, but beyond that he repeats the traditional and tired attacks on for-profit colleges and universities that have become a litmus test for Democrats. Unfortunately, as Hess and I wrote in “Private Enterprise and Public Education,” tax status is a poor proxy on its own for the value of an educational program. For-profits should certainly have guardrails around them, but given the continued poor outcomes of many public institutions, the for-profits aren’t the only ones deserving scrutiny.

Among the other eye-catching items, Bloomberg proposes to automatically enroll student-loan borrowers in income-based repayment plans and cut in half what they will pay. Although he smartly limits this policy to undergraduates—not graduate students who will likely make hefty salaries down the road if they graduate—that protection will likely come at the expense of taxpayers. His plan would be more compelling if colleges shared some of the risk with taxpayers and students. That would also constitute a far stronger accountability measure than anything Bloomberg has proposed.

Bloomberg’s plans at this stage are ultimately less about the specifics, though, than the markers and signals they send. And on that count, he’s done well to create something that sounds big, expansive, generous—and progressive.

Michael B. Horn is cofounder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and an executive editor of Education Next.

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