Although we do not always share the views of Duke administrators, we largely agree with their recent critique of President Obama’s plan to cut college costs.
If implemented, the plan would allow the Department of Education to rank colleges and disburse federal financial aid to colleges that are financially accessible, affordable and have better outcomes. Higher ratings will be given to schools based on certain factors, such as the earnings and advanced degrees graduates later procure.
Although we believe the federal government should help make college more accessible, the plan defines the value of a college education too narrowly and could initiate a turn towards more vocational curricula.
To understand the flaws in Obama’s proposal, it is important first to identify the problem he is trying to address. At colleges across the country—at public and community colleges, in particular—students are shelling out huge sums of money for a college degree only to discover upon graduating that they either cannot land a job or cannot make enough money to pay off their student debt. Obama’s plan aims to solve that problem by rewarding federal aid to colleges that keep costs down and produce graduates that are able to find well-paying jobs.
Because Obama wants colleges to train students for jobs at a low cost, his plan fails to capture the full scope of what a college education ought to offer. It reduces the value of a college education to its instrumental value, implying that a college is only worthwhile insofar as it can help a student find a job. Although colleges ought to create opportunities for students to start careers, that is not the only duty universities have to their students. A college education should equip students with the tools necessary for lifelong personal growth and critical engagement with civic and political institutions.
In so narrowly defining the value of college, the President’s plan will incentivize colleges in need of aid to emphasize job training over the liberal arts. Elite private universities like Duke, because they can operate with reduced federal aid, will face no pressure to restructure, but colleges dependent on federal assistance will confront a clear incentive to shift towards a vocational model. If they do, they will nudge lower-income students towards vocational schools and away from institutions that offer a more holistic, liberal arts education.
Moreover, the plan conflicts with the President’s stated goal of funneling more college graduates into the education sector. If federal aid is tied in any way to graduates’ future earnings, it seems unlikely colleges will encourage their students to pursue a career in education, a profession that remains disgracefully undervalued in the United States.
The proposal will not have much effect on Duke, but it forces us to think more carefully about how to assess the value of a Duke education. Settling on a concrete metric will prove challenging, if not impossible. In light of the rising cost of attending the University, however, administrators should attempt to better articulate the value of a Duke education and to justify major expenditures with reference to that standard of value. Duke is expensive, and administrators need to make sure the University is focused on training engaged citizens and offering students opportunities for meaningful personal and intellectual growth.