The Education Challenge Presented by President Obama’s State of the Union Address

In his State of the Union address, the President called on colleges and universities to do two things that have proved nearly impoosible so far: (1) decrease the cost of education and (2) increase the number of graduates.  The latter, of course, has been one of the fundamentals of this blog, i.e. student success in the form of graduation in addition to mere enrollment.

Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Lumina Foundation, issued thoughtful comments on Mr. Obama’s. address.  Mr. Merisotis observed that the extent of the future demand for college-educated citizens and workers necessitates alternative educational paradigms.  There is little or no evidence that continuing to educate with traditional approaches, typical of our major research universities, will lead to either an increased supply of graduates or lower costs.

Mr. Obama is right to call on colleges and universities for change.  His widely sighted speech late last week at the University of Michigan added few details to his earlier call for change in higher education during his annual address. Expectations are for the Depament of Education to add detail.

Change in higher education also received much attention during the administration of Mr. Bush.  Then, calls for change came from the Commission established by Secretary of Education Spellings.  Traditional universities and their presidents responded by calling on the federal government for patience. The Deepartment was asked to allow colleges and universities to undertake voluntary efforts, and the Department was called on to undstand the considerable differences among traditional universities that limited any single Department of Education approach.  Patience has resulted in little fundamental change.

The new paradigms that Mr. Merisotis called for are little in evidence across much of traditional higher education.  There are many reasons for failure in bringing about change.  Amng them is our state-federal structure with responsibilitiy for public universities in the hands of state governors and legislators and the boards of trustees they appoint.  Moreover, the long, millenial history and past success of colleges and universities appears on the surface to provide little rationale for change.  Then, of course, there is the governance system of most traditional universities.  Finally,there is the budgetary issue that I have addressed before; in contrast to the for-profit sector, traditional universities lack working capital for investment in alternative paradigms.

We have seen over the last few years the efforts of the Obama administration to bring change to the for-profit sector of higher education.  As the administration turns its attention to the traditional sector, few of us should be surprised.  What would be surprising is real change.


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