Change to Higher Education – Possible with The President’s New College Scorecard

Last week, Penley on Education and Energy joined others in praising President Obama for the Department of Education’s (DoE) new College Scorecard.  Following the State of the Union address, the DoE made available a new information site about college costs, including tuition and student debt.  It plans to offer more information such as employment outcomes later.

Making American higher education more accessible and successful has been a common topic for this blog.   The concern for access with success comes from a concern about students’ readiness for higher education along with affordability of colleges and universities and the extent to which the resulting education lives up to its promise of knowledge and skills needed by the American labor force.  Already the scorecard addresses affordability, and plans include information on the extent to which colleges and universities deliver on employment.

A focus on employment is not inconsistent with valuing a liberal arts education at the undergraduate level.  Those of us who received our baccalaureate education from a liberal arts college appreciate what we found in the opportunity to hone analytic and cognitive skills.  We also hope that we are better citizens as a consequence of that education.  But many of us went onto to pursue professional education in areas like business, law, and medicine.

The US needs a well-educated workforce – with the analytical skills promised by a liberal education – and the knowledge and skills needed by employers.  Our economic prosperity depends upon it, and this is clear from economic growth theory that makes the quality of labor and technological advances central to improvements in economic prosperity.  The DoE’s College Scorecard offers hope that higher education will focus more directly upon cost, speed to degree, and employability.  Time to degree matters; shorter degree programs like three-year undergraduate degrees and one-year MBAs lower debt.

With the addition of information from the College Scorecard on employment, there will also be more motivation for colleges and universities to become far more market-driven rather than faculty-driven.  This information, when it is available, will lead colleges and universities to design their degree programs based on the knowledge and skills that matter upon graduation.  That employer-driven focus on the market will have a positive impact on the quality of our labor force.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on student debt is evidence that the Scorecard will have an impact.  Quoting one parent, the Journal reported her saying, “ . . . it would have been ‘absolutely wonderful’ to have such information when her family was picking colleges.”  In other words, the Scorecard will drive parents and students toward some schools and away from others.  That will, indeed, drive change toward increased access – lower tuition and faster time to degree – and greater success – the knowledge and skills needed for employment.   This is good news.


The President on Education – Choice and Vouchers

In his State of the Union address, President Obama emphasized the role of education in our economic recovery.  It is education that gives the middle class opportunity for participation in our economy.  The President is right.  Education’s potential for producing that outcome depends, however, upon two fundamental elements that underlie his thesis.  The first is market-based choice in education and the second is the money necessary for the children of working class parents.

A local friend of mine produces annually a map of high- and low-scoring school districts from his company, Maps & Facts, Unlimited.  The map is one of my favorites; it uses red for high scoring districts and blue for those that yield low or failing scores on standardized tests.  There is little surprise in the location of the red and blue on the map.  The top-scoring school districts are those with the highest per capita income where the best-educated parents live.

America’s promise of opportunity is belied by the increasingly differential opportunity that our children have based on their parents’ education and income.  If America is to make good on its promise – and sustain its economic prowess – change is essential.  Like their wealthier counterparts, poor children must have access to quality education. The President is right.

What is essential, however, is the means to educational access.  Already the President is making clear that parents deserve choice.  He did so via the Department of Education’s new College Scorecard that reveals important data about costs of higher education.  But that same commitment to giving students and their parents a choice should be extended to K-12 education as well.  Allowing more charter schools and providing students with vouchers makes available to working class parents what wealthier parents and their children already have – choice and the means to pay for it.

All of America’s citizens deserve educational opportunity.  Education drives economic growth along with market-based technological innovation.  Making education available to all, however, is the challenge.

For too long we have been reticent to let the market and market information drive educational choice.  The Department of Education’s website is a step in the right direction.  For too long we have assumed that poor children must accept only their local school.  And that local school may not be the best choice for some children from less wealthy households anymore than it is for some children from the wealthiest.  Vouchers give to the poor what the wealthy have long had – the means to that choice.  Let’s look for more action from Washington that encourages states and local school districts to act in favor of open enrollment opportunity and the money to make choice real for all.