President Obama’s State of the Union: The State of Education

by Hap Aziz

I admit the title of this blog entry is misleading; that is, President Obama did not actually provide a deep state-of-education speech last night. However, he did provide some insight into the direction he feels is important for the United States to map out regarding the education of our students, and he specifically called out higher education in some instances. One of his concerns is the cost of higher education, and the control that higher ed institutions should exercise over those costs:

“So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”

What this might mean for institutions, both public as well as private, was not entirely clear from the context of the speech. Certainly, the cost of obtaining a quality education is very important to students (as well as the families of those students that are helping with financial support). Additionally, this theme has been important to the Obama administration historically. In a meeting held in early December of last year, both the president as well as the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, met with several college presidents and some leaders of non-profit education organization to discuss the topic of rising costs (and graduation rate improvement).

Jane Wellman is the founder and director of the Delta Project, which is a non-profit organization that studies the costs of college education. She commented that there “was good discussion on how we drive down tuition, and what the right role is for the federal government.” It’s the role of the federal government–and how it will chose to execute that role–that represents a big question mark to a lot of people and institutions. As a companion piece to the State of the Union speech, the White House released the document An America Built to Last that serves as a blueprint outlining the themes of the speech. Take a look at page 6 of the document and you’ll find this interesting piece: “The President is proposing to shift some Federal aid away from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down and provide good value.”

How that statement transforms into policy is a wide open question, but there could be some significant conditions and additional expectations attached to federal funding for higher education. It is not necessary to enter into a political discussion of the appropriate role of the federal government in order to see the possibility of a shifting funding landscape. And it doesn’t take much prognostication power to see that institutions that act proactively regarding costs are going to be standing on a much better foundation in the years ahead. Certainly, the informed use of technology in the teaching and learning environment will have a great impact on how institutions are able to move forward. I, for one, am very interested in seeing how this all unfolds.

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Filed under Congress, cost of education, U.S. government

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