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President Obama’s education goals are insufficient

President Obama wants to make college more affordable for those in the middle and lower economic classes. A sentiment few would disagree with.

Last month he announced his plan during an address at SUNY Buffalo (full text available at

Obama noted that education means both opportunities for the individual and greater good for society.

Drawing from his own biography, the President noted: “This is the country that gave my grandfather the chance to go to college on the GI Bill after he came back from World War II. This is the country that helped my mother get through school while raising two kids. Michelle and I, we’re only where we are today because scholarships and student loans gave us a shot at a great education.”

Inspiring testimonial, however, his proposed plan for making college more affordable is deeply flawed.

The plan privileges “colleges that do a better job of preparing students for graduation and a job.”

Of course colleges should help students to graduate in a timely fashion. And, in fact, colleges do prepare students for the workforce.

However, should job training be the primary function of a bachelor’s degree? Should the starting salary of the graduate be a primary concern?

A college’s success should not be measured primarily by the salaries of its alumni. Rather, a college’s success should be measured by how effectively it creates an environment for students to follow their passions, whether those passions are economically lucrative or not.

A woman who loves accounting and creates innovative systems within the discipline is a success, and so, too, is the man who uses art as a therapeutic tool in working with homeless teens.

When we measure success primarily in market terms, we reduce cultural values to monetary values.

From poet Carolyn Forché to CEO John Meier, the University’s distinguished alumni come from a wide range of professions.

This is as it should be.

For every successful CEO that a college can claim among its alumni, let us hope it also claims, with pride [as the University does], the poets, the public defenders, the investigative journalists, the theoretical physicists; any of those who may not be economically rich, but without whom we would be a much poorer society.

The President also proposes “major new reforms that will shake up the current system, create better incentives for colleges to do more with less and deliver better value for students and their families.” Here, too, his proposal is misdirected.

“Better value” is the language of the consumer, not the student. And, students [current and former] have a right to be offended to have their academic careers characterized in terms of bargain-basement prices.

Colleges can find ways to cut costs without providing education on the cheap. Institutions can look to the bloat in salaries among those who are marginally connected to classroom instruction.

Rudy Fichtenbaum, President of the American Association of University Professors, [citing a Dec. 28, 2012 Wall Street Journal article] notes that between 2001 and 2011, colleges and universities hiring practices focused on administrators not instructors.

Focusing on research and instruction, rather than on administration, can contain costs.

Finally, to address the rising costs of higher education, taxpayers can lobby their state and federal legislators to increase the state share of instruction while providing additional federal assistance. At this University, for instance, the state share of the projected budget for 2014 is a mere 23 percent whereas tuition is projected to cover 71 percent of costs.

Imagine how many more Ohioans could attend state schools if the state [and federal share] of the budget were 71 percent and tuition a mere 23 percent of the overall budget.

President Obama’s focus on higher education is essential to the health and well being of not only our economy, but our democracy as well. That’s why his current plan is so depressingly inadequate.

Respond to Julie at

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