The Podium

Obama’s missed opportunity on higher ed

The college ratings controversy is heating up. The Obama administration asserts that a rating system must be developed in the interests of ensuring the value of higher education for a public that supports $150 billion in federal financial aid. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes that a ratings system is necessary in order for government to be a “good steward” of these dollars. But critics argue that a “one size fits all” approach to judging the quality of institutions is at best simplistic, and at worst damaging to those whose missions may not conform to the rating measures. Liberal arts institutions, for instance, prepare students for meaningful, but possibly lower paying occupations than more vocationally-focused institutions. If the rating system assesses value on the basis of earned income, then these fine institutions could be hurt.

At the heart of the criticism is the belief that the president ignores the academic purpose of higher education. This is not to deny the value of his emphases on affordability, career readiness and successful employment, managing loan debt, transparency and accountability. However, higher education is fundamentally about education, and how education can have value and import for those undergoing it will vary. Hence, there is variety of missions in American higher education, responding to these different interests.

Higher education is essential to the American public’s development of a flexible mind, an openness to change that the president has himself espoused throughout his political career. In a June 2005 speech, he declared: “The true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them.” In a 2008 presidential campaign speech, he spoke of “the promise of change over the power of the status quo,” and he advised, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.”


Our schools and colleges have the potential to either extend or stunt our ability as a culture to respond flexibly, creatively, intelligently to social problems. This is where Obama has fallen short in his push for a single rating metric for higher education. He fails to focus on education’s potential to affect the very appetite for and abilities to respond to the change he has advocated for.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

John Dewey stressed the importance of an enduring responsiveness to a changing world in the interests of democracy. He warned in 1927 of a conservatism that would curtail the advance of democracy by arresting our ability to respond forcefully and creatively to unfolding social problems. He described this conservatism as a growing social pathology, visible politically as a “riotous glorification of things as they are.” Rhetoric that is bent on preserving current conditions, often couched as a preservation of “values,” is symptomatic of a kind of cultural ignorance, or blindness to the very nature of human reality. The world is always changing; in flux. The question is less about whether or not we believe in change than if we are capable of responding to it.

A principal question for the president should be whether or not education facilitates such a response. How do students value what we have them do as students; what is the value of academic subject matter in their experience? Dewey was a principal critic of the idea of students spending most of their time proving or failing to prove that they can express material in the form in which it is provided.

To Obama’s credit, he has sometimes cautioned against “teaching to the test,” but he has not directly articulated the idea that education should foster the dispositions toward positive, social change that he himself endorses. His perspective on culture and change could be expressed through an educational policy that celebrates learning through exploration, discovery, productive, forward-thinking action and projects, with corresponding assessment and reporting methods.

Our educational institutions should be held accountable for the development of a nimble intelligence that is defied by current notions of standardization and related teaching and assessment practices. The president’s advocacy for a single metric rating system in higher education misses its potential to equip American society with a populace that is prepared for and motivated toward an active responsiveness to a fluid, constantly changing world.

Jim Ostrow is vice president for academic affairs at Lasell College.