With much fanfare, President Obama today announced a new set of proposals to rein in the cost of higher education, the most eye-catching of which is the creation of a ranking—based on metrics such as affordability, graduation rates, and recruitment of low-income students—that would be used in apportioning federal aid to colleges and universities. Some of the proposals can be carried out by administrative fiat, but others would require congressional action. And, as Jonathan Chait notes, this raises an interesting choice for Republicans: will they side with liberal-infested academia or with the loathed president?
Given the track record of the past few years, I’m willing to wager they won’t be siding with Obama, even if means allying with pointy-headed deans and provosts in Volvos. But here’s the thing: if and when Republicans do rise against Obama’s cost-control plan as another example of heavy-handed big government, they should be aware that his plan has firm roots in George W. Bush’s White House.
Yes, even the deregulatory-happy Bush administration realized that things were getting out of hand on the tuition front, and was contemplating serious action, even at the risk of violating the treasured independence of American institutions of higher learning, which, private and public alike, benefit hugely from taxpayer funding in the form of student aid and other support, but are required to provide next to nothing in the way of data or other accountability. In Bush’s second term, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings set off ivory tower alarms nationwide with her call for getting institutions to provide more data about student outcomes (such as graduation rates and the results of the highly regarded National Survey of Student Engagement, which most colleges refuse to release) and her talk of—gasp—coming up with tests to gauge what students were getting out of their years on campus. She had backing in this from some key Hill Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who’s been after colleges about rising tuition for years.
Here is Spellings in a 2006 speech at the National Press Club:
If you want to buy a new car, you go online and compare a full range of models, makes and pricing options. And when you're done you'll know everything from how well each car holds its value down to wheel size and number of cup-holders. The same transparency and ease should be the case when students and families shop for colleges, especially when one year of college can cost a lot more than a car.
And here she is at the American Enterprise Institute in 2007:
Finally, we need to improve accountability at our colleges and universities. We expect clear information and transparency about nearly every big investment we make, from choosing a doctor to buying a car or house. And we have now come to expect accountability from K- 12 education through No Child Left Behind.
But despite ever-increasing tuitions at colleges and universities, we do not have a very good idea about what we are getting for all that money. The Federal government has invested hundreds of billions of taxpayers' money and consumers deserve accountability and clear information. Colleges and universities must be more transparent about things like cost and graduation rates so that students and parents can make informed choices about postsecondary education.”
She noted in that speech that Bush’s budget included a $25 million pilot program to help states collect and analyze college student data and measure outcomes such as graduation rates and academic performance, and that 40 states already have systems like that in place. But Spellings’ talk of true accountability for colleges in form of greater transparency or new testing never came to fruition, thanks to vigorous opposition from the higher education lobby, one of the most underestimated forces in Washington.
Now, it’s Obama’s turn to take another run at the ivy-covered walls, with an even more ambitious proposal. If congressional Republicans lock arms in defense of the colleges, they will be doing so in direct contravention of Republican policy from just a few years earlier. But then again, that hasn’t stopped them before.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.