President Obama's Education Plan -- A No-Brainer for Colleges

Senator Mark Rubio (R-Fla) has labeled President Barrack Obama's plan to set standards for colleges and universities a "slippery slope."

"The U.S. did not create the best higher education system in the world by using standards set by Washington bureaucrats," Rubio offered.

Perhaps Senator Rubio would put his private-sector hat back on and ask himself "What self-respecting business would invest $150 billion a year for training -- and then not expect the trainers to meet a set of standards for the product they provide?"

Colleges and universities are already in the standard-setting business. They set standards for every applicant they accept as a student. They set standards for hiring, firing and contract renewal of faculty, staff and administrators. Students earn their grades and their degrees based on meeting standards.

President Obama also proposes making use of "metrics" - another reason for resistance. The president proposes measuring how many dollars of debt a student carries upon graduation, how well schools do in enrolling and graduating students on Pell grants, how many students graduate on time, how well those graduates do finding work, and how long it takes them to pay off student debt.

Metrics are a no-brainer at any campus; we use them all the time since research is at the heart of major universities. Surely we can address the President's legitimate concerns without the need for D.C. bureaucrats parachuting onto campus quads to impose impossible standards, as some critics seem to fear.

In the president's words: "We're going to jumpstart new competition between colleges -- not just on the field or on the court, but in terms of innovation that encourages affordability, encourages student success, and doesn't sacrifice educational quality."

If U.S. universities, which constitute as Senator Rubio notes, "the best higher education system in the world" can't do this, then who can? They can begin now identifying those schools and departments where student satisfaction, graduation rates and/or post-graduation employment rates are low. Most schools have already instituted policies to avoid grade inflation. Why not other policies to avoid student dissatisfaction, failure and maximize the likelihood of professional success?

"It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results," the president said Friday in Buffalo. His plan aims to reward "good actors" among colleges - those who keep costs down and results up.

It's difficult to find fault with the principle of these remarks as public and private university tuitions have skyrocketed and students and their parents are paying more of that cost directly than in the past - from less than 30 percent in 2000 compared to almost 50 percent in 2012.

Over the last 3 decades, the average tuition at public four-year colleges has risen by 250 percent, while average family income has risen by just 16 percent. Average debt for graduating students is over $26,000, while graduation rates at many schools are simply unimpressive.

While these problems exist, it's clear that higher education is still a ticket to a more fulfilled life and a more informed citizenry. Education does indeed make a difference. It is not a luxury, but an "economic imperative" as the president asserts.

It's high time we measured the prestige of a college not largely by how many people they reject but by how many they accept who graduate and get good jobs.

Perhaps, you heard the following when you entered college - an unfortunate sentiment that's been said to entering freshman for decades:

"Look to your left. Now look to your right. Only one of you will graduate in four years."

With costs of tuition in the tens of thousands of dollars, students saddled with inordinate debt, and too few finding meaningful work in their fields, it is indeed time to respond to that scare tactic with a simple, very good question: "And just whose fault is that?"

Kathleen also blogs here and just published her first novel, Shadow Campus.