Progress in higher ed. reform not enough

In his first 100 days, Obama has enacted legislation to make college more affordable. But that’s not enough change.

It seems that amid the panic surrounding our nationwide economic meltdown, keeping tabs on one of President Barack Obama’s most important promises âÄî the one to reform higher education âÄî has been put on the backburner. ItâÄôs understandable that the catastrophe of more than five million jobs lost and nationwide unemployment hitting its highest level in more than a quarter-century would be forefront in the nationâÄôs collective consciousness. But itâÄôs of vital importance to remember higher education is a key ingredient to economic stability and growth. âÄúAs the United States has moved from an industrial economy to a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy, American higher education has emerged as the premier system for preparing the highly skilled workers our nation requires,âÄù wrote Donna Desrochers, vice president and director of education studies for the Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. âÄúIn the twenty-first century, America’s ability to produce and disseminate education will increasingly determine its economic competitiveness.âÄù So we ask the question: What has Obama done for higher education since taking office? One of his primary campaign promises was to make higher education more affordable for average Americans through such measures as tax credits and loan reforms. He has taken decisive steps on both fronts. In his first 100 days, Obama has enacted legislation to make college more affordable by making working families eligible for a $2,500 tax credit to help offset the cost of tuition and expanding the Perkins Loan Program. He also plans to reform the Pell Grants, which he said âÄúroughly 30 percent of students rely on to put themselves through college,âÄù by adding $500 to Pell Grants for the 2009-10 academic year, raising next yearâÄôs maximum grant from $5,350 to $5,500 and giving Pell Grants a fixed rate above inflation to ensure they increase as costs rise. And, on Friday, Obama announced his plans to reform the nationâÄôs student loan system by decreasing the role of private lenders and placing the responsibility on the federal government. Obama is calling for a shift from the private Federal Family Education Loans to federal Direct Loans because he said the country cannot afford the billions of dollars in premiums that banks receive from taxpayers each year. Ending the FFEL program and relying solely on Direct Loans would make tax dollars directly responsible for helping students pay for college and ultimately âÄúsave tens of billions of tax dollars over the next 10 years,âÄù he said. Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, wrote in a recent New York Times opinion piece, âÄúMost graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market … and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand … all at a rapidly rising cost.âÄù Add to these problems the antiquating forces of rapidly changing technology and the shrinking job market and itâÄôs not just graduate students who are facing the prospect of degrees that hold little to no real world value. Many experts such as Taylor argue that rather than a departmentally divided, one-size-fits-all model to which so many universities adhere, curriculum should be structured like a âÄúweb or complex adaptive networkâÄù that makes teaching and learning a cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural experience. The path to reform for colleges and universities is clouded, to be sure. But the fact is that American higher education is in a state of crisis. Obama has taken strong action toward improving the system, but simply making it cheaper is not enough. We hope throughout the coming four years, he continues to make good on his promise of change by enacting the reform that American higher education so desperately needs. This editorial, accessed via UWire, was originally published in the Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon. Please send comments to [email protected]