No College Left Behind?

As I’ve said before, higher education reform increasingly feels like a rerun of the past two decades of K-12 reform—only on a 15 year time delay. In the past few years, President Obama and now Hillary Clinton have issued proposals that would give Washington unprecedented sway over higher ed, and these are gaining traction. It looks increasingly like we’re on the cusp of higher ed’s NCLB moment.

It’s all brought to the forefront what can happen when impassioned advocates, self-confident federal appointees, and well-meaning legislators try to fix education from Washington. I fear that a Clinton administration will wind up replaying the NCLB soap opera in higher ed, only this time as farce. The prospect prompted me and my former colleague Andrew Kelly (who’s gone off to be a higher ed leader in North Carolina) to pen a lengthy essay on “No College Left Behind?” for the newest issue of National Affairs in which we look at where NCLB went off the rails and what lessons that experience holds for today’s higher ed reformers.

As we note in the introduction to the piece:

In January 2015, [President Obama] announced a plan to provide two years of community-college tuition for free but at a cost to taxpayers of $60 billion over 10 years. It would have been one thing if he had merely proposed spending that money on Pell Grants. But he had something much bigger in mind. Obama proposed that new funds go directly to schools rather than to eligible students as a voucher. Such a change would mark a tectonic shift in higher education. For a half-century, Uncle Sam has empowered low-income college students to choose from a range of offerings—public or private, religious or secular, for-profit or nonprofit. The new plan would funnel federal money directly to one type of public college, taking a first step away from the existing voucher model and toward one that looks more like America’s K-12 system.

Direct funding would also enable a second change: greater federal control over community colleges and states. Indeed, the fact sheet that accompanied the president’s announcement read like a federal reform agenda for community colleges. Participating institutions would be required to “adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes” (though the administration was vague about just what Washington might require). Participating states would have to “coordinate high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions to reduce the need for remediation and repeated courses; and allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance.”

Having identified a pressing middle-class concern, Democrats have decided that the best way to fix it is to move America’s mixed-market system of higher education toward a publicly controlled system effectively governed from Washington.

In the piece, we recommend that reformers keep in mind that measuring educational quality is much more difficult than it may first appear, and that tying imperfect measures to punitive consequences can create unfortunate distortions. They should also be nervous about the effects of conscripted federalism, beware the often illusory promise of public accountability, understand that Washington is hard-pressed to “fix” schools or colleges, and remember that “modest” expansions of the federal role rarely stay that way.

As we observe in our conclusion:

Higher education has taken K-12’s place in the hierarchy of federal policy issues—due both to weariness with what well-intended federal efforts have wrought in K-12 and to public concerns about tuition prices and student debt. In other words, 2017 may be to higher education what 2001 was to K-12 policy: a wide open policy window for those pursuing federal reform. . . . NCLB’s unfortunate legacy included moving the center of the nation’s K-12 conversation to Washington—inevitably shifting authority to distant regulators, ideologues, and lawyers. In the age of NCLB, appointment to even a junior post at the Department of Education became a grand prize, a ticket to influence and respect, and a chance for young bureaucrats to give marching orders to state leaders and superintendents. If one deems this the recipe for improving America’s colleges and universities, all well and good. But for those who believe that higher-education improvement is more likely to result from the efforts of educators, communities, and entrepreneurs than from the dictates of officials in Washington, NCLB’s legacy should serve as a cautionary tale.

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read the whole thing here.

—Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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