Around Washington: College Prices, Student Data

President Obama signals concern about rapidly rising tuitions; GAO reports on state records systems and student privacy.

September 28, 2010

WASHINGTON -- In a conversation with student journalists aimed at trumpeting his administration's higher education accomplishments and persuading young people (roughly a month ahead of midterm elections) that he's fighting for their interests, President Obama also signaled to college leaders that he is closely watching their soaring prices.

The president spent most of his time on the conference call with editors at college student newspapers discussing financial aid increases and health care changes designed to help young Americans maneuver through increasingly difficult financial times, so that they don't become a "lost generation," as Colin Daileda, a Radford University senior, put it. "Do you think it will take a longer time than usual for our generation to get on our feet?"

Obama sought to be reassuring, saying: "First of all, I think your generation is going to be just fine. I mean, we’ve gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and so things are real tough for young people right now. But having said that, if you are getting a college degree, if you’ve got skills in math and science or good, sound communication skills, there are still jobs out there even in a tough environment. And 9 out of 10 people who are looking for work can still find work."

As he mixed political chatter (bashing Republicans for favoring tax cuts for the rich and implying that they would roll back increases in student aid) with sports small talk (discussing the results of Saturday's football games with several callers), the president was asked by Daniel Schonhaut of the University of California at Los Angeles to "address this concern that public higher education is becoming more of a strain on families?"

The president's answer managed, in about a minute, both to cogently summarize the factors that many experts credit (or blame) for rapidly increasing college tuitions and to make clear that continued escalation is unacceptable.

"If I keep on increasing Pell Grants and increasing student loan programs and making it more affordable, but ... higher education inflation keeps on going up at the pace that it’s going up right now, then we’re going to be right back where we started, putting more money in, but it’s all being absorbed by these higher costs," Obama said.

It aggravated college leaders no end that officials in the Bush administration often played down the extent to which state budget cuts contributed to rising college prices, and Obama has avoided that trap. "[S]tate budgets are being so hard pressed that they’re having to make severe cutbacks in the support they provide to public education," the president said Monday. "So one of the things that I can do to help is to make sure that the economy is growing, states then are taking in more tax revenue, and if states are taking in more tax revenue, then they don't have to try to pass on increased costs to students because they can maintain levels of support to institutions of higher learning."

But college and state leaders need to do their parts, too, Obama said, to "figure out what is driving all this huge inflation in the cost of higher education, because this is actually the only place where inflation is higher than health care inflation." While health insurance and other employee-related costs are "out of the control of the administrators at universities," the president said, "there are other aspects of this where, frankly, I think students as consumers, parents as consumers, and state legislators and governors are going to need to put more pressure on universities."

Sounding a bit like the grandfather who tells the teenagers that he used to walk a mile to school in the snow without boots, Obama said he has been struck on campus visits by "the athletic facilities that exist these days, or the food courts or the other things that have to do with the quality of life at universities. ...

"[I]t’s sure a lot nicer than it was when I was going to college. ... And part of what I think we’ve got to examine is are we designing our universities in a way that focuses on the primary thing, which is education. You’re not going to a university to join a spa; you’re going there to learn so that you can have a fulfilling career. And if all the amenities of a public university start jacking up the cost of tuition significantly, that’s a problem."

Obama touched (in a slightly self-contradictory way) on the tension over faculty workloads, "so that we’re making sure that the teaching loads at universities continue to emphasize research and continue to give professors the opportunity to engage in work outside the classroom that advances knowledge, but at the same time reminding faculties that their primary job is to teach, and so you’ve got to structure how universities operate to give students the best deal that they can -- that’s important, too."

The president said the administration will be "working with university presidents and college presidents to figure out how can we get control of costs generally and refocus our priorities and our attention on what the primary function of a university is, and that is to give students the knowledge and skills that they need to have a fulfilling career after they get out -- not to provide the best situation for the four years that they’re there."

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said the higher education presidents' group would be "happy at any time" to work with the president on such a review. He called the president's analysis "incredibly detailed and amazingly insightful," especially for "somebody who is extraordinarily busy with matters of state."

GAO on State Student Records Systems

In the push to measure outcomes, states are moving to maintain longitudinal data systems linking educational and employment information for individual students, but concerns about maintaining student privacy and judging institutions fairly worry some state and institutional officials, reported the Government Accountability Office in a study released Monday.

Based on surveys conducted by the Lumina Foundation for Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers, GAO counted 26 states that maintain longitudinal data systems that track employment and other outcomes of the graduates of postsecondary institutions, while 45 have at least one postsecondary data system.

GAO found that the U.S. Department of Education needs to offer more guidance on how state agencies can ensure compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act while still effectively keeping tabs on students. Several federal initiatives, including the department’s Grant Program for Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems, aim to encourage states to link education and workforce data, and could potentially violate FERPA.

In some states, GAO said, agencies use workforce data to promote economic development, offer feedback to institutions on where and how students were employed after earning certain degrees, and inform prospective students of their potential outcomes. GAO also suggested expanding direct state-to-state data sharing to better understand work force movement across state lines.

The report was authorized by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 and conducted between July 2009 and this month, and does in a sense weigh in on the current tug-of-war over the Education Department’s proposed regulations on “gainful employment," which would use average salaries calculated by the Social Security Administration as one part of a formula to measure student outcomes.

Some stakeholders interviewed, including officials from colleges, GAO said, “raised concerns that employment outcomes that are beyond a school’s control should not be used as a basis for assessing the quality of the education provided by the school or adequacy of preparing students for employment.”

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