The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
SOTU Bright Spot: Higher Ed Reform

This year’s State of the Union address—like most that came before it—was a policy grab bag of sorts. Slate’s Matt Yglesias offered a good roundup of backgrounders for the President’s various proposals. It’s worth spending some time reading through these because, as Yglesias notes, they’re likely to be the general outlines of Democratic Party policy thinking for years to come.

One in particular caught Via Meadia‘s eye. Yglesias:

People learn things all kinds of ways. I learn a lot from reading blogs and magazines. Hopefully people learn from reading me. I look things up on Wikipedia. I read books. I listen to lectures on iTunes. But federal funding is tied to a particular kind of learning in a particular set of institutions—college courses in accredited colleges. And who decides what an accredited college is? Why trade groups composed of accredited colleges do! The White House offered the potentially revolutionary idea of un-linked [sic] these financial streams from the accreditation cartels in a bit of a sotto voce moment last night.

The Obama administration released a rough policy blueprint after the SOTU, which you can read here. According to this document, more than $150 billion in grant aid is currently delegated by the government solely for accredited colleges. The Obama administration plans to ask Congress to approve either the inclusion of affordability considerations in the current accreditation system or the creation of an “alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.”

This strikes us as both important and doable. If Congress agrees, the doors of creativity in the higher education industry will be blown wide open. Suddenly, established  institutions will be forced to compete with new education models that deliver equal services at a cheaper price. New ways of learning and teaching will breathe fresh air into a stale and at times underperforming system. The closer this policy moves to implementation, the more pushback it is likely to encounter from the higher ed cartel. But if the proposal passes, it could mean big changes down the line for college kids and families choking on student debt.

The President’s other proposals included everything from domestic policy to trade deals. As Yglesias notes, many of them—for political and financial reasons—are unlikely to go far. And it’s certainly not going to get easier for Obama as time goes on. Historically, the party of a sitting president does very badly in the off year elections following the president’s re-election. Unless the GOP blows it big time (a possibility that should never be underestimated with the GOP’s current problems) the President will have an even tougher Congress after 2014.

Published on February 14, 2013 8:35 am