Some College Presidents Say Obama’s Math is Fuzzy

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January 28, 2012; Source: Associated Press | With his trademarked rolled-up sleeves, President Barack Obama pulled no punches Friday at the University of Michigan, urging states to boost funding for higher education while calling for colleges and universities to contain the cost of the American Dream or else risk the loss of federal funding. Public universities especially are in an uproar, already squeezed by cuts in local funding, which is normally a much larger slice of their revenue than is the case at private institutions.

Illinois State President Al Bowman calls it “fuzzy math” and University of Washington President Mike Young believes Obama’s stance is “political theater of the worst sort.” For them, the real math is clear: the only significant cuts can come from loading curricula with giant lecture courses taught by more part-time adjuncts. In turn, quality education will suffer, according to Bowman.

This may be much ado about little. Currently, $140 billion of federal loans and grants go directly to students, falling outside of the president’s target. The funds in play are the $3 billion of “campus-based aid” that is currently funneled to students through college administrators. Obama proposes an almost 250 percent increase (to $10 billion) of this indirect subsidy, but would reroute the money to reward public colleges and universities that hold down tuition costs and foster higher graduation rates for poor students.

Obama also called for a redux of his “Race to the Top” grade-school scramble, this time with $1 billion in prizes to jolt states to make wiser use of higher education aid. The president also wants better tools for students to compare value among colleges. Collectively, these mandates call for higher education to create a competitive business model based on greater efficiency and transparency. Obama’s plan may look like a populist thrust and parry against his Republican rivals, but the real question is whether his tough love towards academia and pressure for fiscal accountability will be backed by sticks and carrots that are adequate for the job at hand. –Louis Altman