Obama goes for college ‘datapalooza’


President Obama speaks with Tully Junior-Senior High School soccer team members in Tully, N.Y., on Aug. 23. Obama is on a two-day tour through New York and Pennsylvania to discuss plans to make college more affordable. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
August 23, 2013

In President Obama’s plan to overhaul higher education, which envisions using new federal ratings of colleges to determine levels of student aid, there is a deep faith in the power of information and innovation to catalyze change in colleges and universities.

Ultimately, the belief is that these forces will make college more affordable.

Yet academia has witnessed and taken part in many waves of innovation in the past half-century, and affordability remains elusive.

The administration’s faith is encapsulated in a word the White House used this week in a fact sheet about the plan: “Datapalooza.” Here’s the reference:

“New college ratings will help students compare the value offered by different colleges,” the fact sheet said. “The Department of Education will enlist entrepreneurs and technology leaders with a ‘Datapalooza’ to catalyze new private-sector tools, services, and apps to help students evaluate and select colleges. The effort will be complemented by earnings information by college that will be released for the first time on [the] administration’s College Scorecard this fall.”

What is a datapalooza? Apparently, it is a festival of, or related to, data. The White House and the Education Department hosted such an event Oct. 9. Students and parents are arguably awash in data now, much of it conflicting and confusing. Some would say more is better.

Few would argue that better data would be best of all for the consumer.

The yen for better data is shared not just by Obama but also by some colleges. Start with graduation rates.

Now, the federal government measures how many students graduate within four years or six years of starting college. But it only measures that for students who are first-timers, who are enrolled full-time and who don’t transfer from one institution to another, omitting a huge share of the college population. Millions of students are part-timers. Community colleges with excellent records of getting students into prestigious four-year schools are not rewarded for their efforts if those students fail to pick up an associate’s degree before they transfer. Nor are four-year colleges that give transfer students or former dropouts a second chance and help them get a bachelor’s degree.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which represents schools such as the University of Maryland, is spearheading an effort to improve this flawed metric, using not only federal data but also information from the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse to track degree completion for students who move from one school to another.

One question Education Secretary Arne Duncan will face, as he confers with colleges to create a ratings system within the next two years, is what kind of graduation rate the government will use. Another is what kind of data the government will report on income of college graduates.

All we know about the federal rating metrics at this point are rough sketches from the fact sheet, highlighting these potential factors: “access, such as percentage of students receiving Pell grants; affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.”

The plan envisions that ratings will be tied to student aid formulas by 2018, if Congress agrees. That is a big if. It’s also a year after Obama’s term ends.

There is nothing in the plan that would force states to give more funding to public higher education, one of the key cost drivers in tuition. The president recognized the issue, touting a proposal that he has made before — a “Race to the Top” incentive fund of $1 billion for higher education. This fund would aim to spur state reforms and reward states that maintain strong higher education funding, much as an identically named fund for K-12 education did in 2009 and 2010. But it is unlikely to win congressional approval.

Obama’s plan highlights innovation. The president gave a major shout-out to a movement to award degrees based not on how much time students spend in class but on how well they master their material, citing an experiment under way at Southern New Hampshire University and one that is about to launch at the University of Wisconsin.

“So the idea would be if you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less and you save money,” Obama said Thursday in a speech at the University at Buffalo. This notion is indeed revolutionary in academia because most degrees are awarded based on the concept of a credit hour — which is a rough measure of the time a student spends doing work in and for a course.

Obama also underscored the online learning movement, which has gained steam in recent years, saying that it holds out the promise of reducing costs. Carnegie Mellon, Arizona State and Georgia Tech universities won coveted presidential mentions in the speech. So did the University of Maryland, in the fact sheet. Fans of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, took heart from this.

What exactly can the administration do to hasten technological innovation besides hosting datapaloozas? The fact sheet points to two proposals: one that requires money, and one that doesn’t. A “First in the World” fund of $260 million, presumably requiring congressional approval, would “test and evaluate innovative approaches to higher education that yield dramatically better outcomes.” Education officials liken this to a $650 million “Investing in Innovation” fund created under the 2009 stimulus law that has been used as seed money for experiments in K-12 education.

And the Education Department could cut regulatory barriers to innovation, whatever those might be. Education officials said Friday that they plan to solicit ideas from colleges on what government rules are hindering innovation. Many educators might say that red tape gets in the way of experiments in distance learning and degree programs not organized around the traditional credit hour.

The fact sheet asserts: “The Department will use its authority to issue regulatory waivers for ‘experimental sites’ that promote high-quality, low-cost innovations in higher education, such as making it possible for students to get financial aid based on how much they learn, rather than the amount of time they spend in class.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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