Clinton’s not exactly brilliant plan on addressing costs in higher ed

There was an article in Inside Higher Ed the other day about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s “innovation” plan for helping to address costs in higher education. I am sure there is a lot more to this than what IHE was able to summarize, but here’s part of what IHE said:

The plan proposes $10 billion in federal funding (a significant amount in tight budget times, no matter who wins the election) for students to enroll in vetted boot camps, coding academies, massive open online courses and other programs run by alternative education providers, as well as providing unspecified rewards for colleges that accept those programs as credit toward graduation.

For entrepreneurs, the plan proposes letting them and potentially their first 10 to 20 employees defer payments on their student loans, penalty-free, for up to three years “as they work through the critical start-up phase of new enterprises.” Entrepreneurs whose start-ups serve “distressed communities” or “provide measurable social impact and benefit” will after five years be able to apply to have up to $17,500 of their loans forgiven.

There’s also a big emphasis on STEM programs, education toward jobs, etc., etc.

I think Alexander Holt has a nice follow-up column to this, also in Inside Higher Ed, “Clinton’s Giveaway to Silicon Valley.” Among other things, Holt points out that more STEM training isn’t automatically “the solution” since there is some evidence that there is actually a larger supply of STEM trained would-be employees than jobs, that the status quo already has loan deferment plans along the lines of what Clinton is proposing, and the last group of students who college students who need financial help from the government is would-be entrepreneurs. To quote:

If Clinton wants to give away money to people who will eventually be wealthy, this proposal is a great idea. People working in tech start-ups will likely go on to earn a fairly high income in life. If a young entrepreneur has a degree from a good school and highly valuable skills, she can still get a high-paying job even if the company fails. If her company succeeds, she will eventually have a lot of money.

And just to add: for the most part, Clinton’s plan to help entrepreneurs is not going to help most of the students we have at Eastern. Most/many of our students are from working class/working poor backgrounds and they are often first generation college students. These students are getting college degrees to get a foothold into the middle-class. Sure, some of our students have Silicon Valley-like savvy and the desire to start their own businesses, but the vast majority of our students are trying to get into an already existing field and business. The same probably goes for most students at most universities, actually.

But speaking specifically about MOOCs and alternative providers: Clinton (and whoever she is listening to on this) is just flat-out ignoring how higher education works. I’ve blogged about this many many times before, and I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new or controversial. To sum up:

  • MOOCs and professional training enterprises (like Lynda.com) are mostly useful to adults who already have college degrees and jobs who are seeking additional training and credentials, and particularly training and credentials in IT related fields. Traditionally-aged (18-21 year olds, more or less) would-be college students are interested in a degree program, not miscellaneous classes that they cobble together from various MOOCs and “boot camps.” This is why MOOCs have been pivoting to the adult/corporate training market and away from the higher education market.
  • While everyone agrees that college is too expensive and that the costs should be contained, the solution is not to offer cheaper and largely unproven alternatives. Rather, the solution (IMO) is to look at all of the alternatives that already exist. Unlike in a lot of parts of the world, in the U.S. we have hundreds of community colleges and regional universities (like EMU) that are geographically accessible.
  • Furthermore, (as I’ve blogged about before too), while the costs of attendance obviously matters to traditional college students and their families, it is only one factor students make about where to go to college, and it’s usually not the most important choice. The Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying first year students for fifty years, and in answer to the question about what was “very important” in their decision about where to attend college, cost consistently runs behind “the college has a very good academic reputation” and “the college’s graduates get good jobs,” and it is almost tied with “the college has a good reputation for its social activities.” If cost was the most important reason for why students decide to go where they go, Washtenaw Community College would have to turn down a significant percentage of the students who applied and the University of Michigan would be begging people to think about going there. In short, the solutions being proposed– making higher education cheaper– doesn’t address the real problem, which is access to high quality higher education.
  • To the extent that MOOCs are going to be useful for students earning college credit, it is most likely going to be for things like the College Level Examination Program (aka CLEP tests), advanced placement, or for various “experience-based” degrees and credits. For example, Georgia Tech has an Online Masters of Computer Science program that is running more or less as a MOOC. As I understand it, a lot of the students in this program are IT people who are well-versed in the kinds of things they are studying.The students enrolled in this program are there not so much to “learn new things;” they are there to prove to a credential-providing institution that they already know these things. That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t going to help the 18 to 20 year old looking for experience in the first place.
  • While the dropout rates in MOOCs might mean a lot of different things, one thing is for sure: students who successfully start and complete a MOOC for credit have an unusually high level of self-motivation and ability to work independently. Most traditional college students are not like this. Actually, most everyone is not like this.

Now, if Hillary et al were to call me and ask for my ideas, the first thing I would suggest is that they look around them to the solutions that exist in the form of accessible community colleges and regional universities like EMU. In theory, I’m for a system where students can attend universities like EMU for free, though in practice, I worry about the strings that would be attached to that kind of program by the Feds (as if Institutional Assessment of various flavors wasn’t bad enough). Besides, it’s a fantasy to think that Hillary (or Bernie, for that matter) can wave a magic wand and make that happen over night.

What could happen more easily (maybe?) is the Feds could boost the amount of money going into the Pell Grant program, they could ease the restrictions on how students can use that money (let them go to summer school, for example), and they could roll back the cost of student loans to either zero points interest or the same as the prime rate. There is absolutely no reason why the Federal government ought to be making any money off of its student loan program.

But then again, no one asked me, so….

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