The Gimme Gimme Game

Saturday, August 15, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

The President's proposed Access and Completion Fund, as represented in HR 3221, is an ambitious effort to get states and institutions of higher education focused on a crucial goal: moving more students from the starting gate to the finish line. By encouraging an emphasis on the need to find constructive routes to degree completion that can be brought to scale, helping more students more quickly, the legislation aims to enact a meaningful shift -- from access alone to access leading to success.

Of course, there had to be someone or something standing in the way of these lofty ambitions. And unsurprisingly, it's the colleges and universities themselves. The four-year institutions in particular, as self-interested and self-serving as ever, have come forward via their powerful lobbying associations to demand that the Fund work not via states but instead funnel the money directly to them. Why? According to a recent Chronicle article, colleges believe such an approach would be more "efficient and effective."

Unlikely. First, to be more efficient the money would have to incur bigger impacts at lower costs. Spreading the total sum ($2.5 billion) among all public 4-year colleges and universities would make that extremely hard to achieve. Imagine the administrative hassles alone. Second, the chances of colleges and universities achieving the kinds of intended impacts without coordination by states are slim to none. The success of the Fund will depend, in part, on getting states to change business as usual, implementing new innovative practices systemwide, reducing waste, and effecting new incentives for institutions. It's hard to imagine autonomous institutions, focused largely on their bottom lines (and yes, even state institutions are guilty of this), making such efforts. Coordination will be key, and 4-year colleges and universities hardly every play nice together. Systematic change requires thinking beyond the needs of colleges, to focus on the needs of students-- states will likely have to force institutions into making this happen by requiring partnerships.

I'll note there are at least two more potential problems with the colleges' proposed solution. Data collection and evaluation are required as part of accepting Fund dollars, and will be nearly impossible to implement unless distribution of dollars (and evaluation efforts) are coordinated at the state level.

And finally, as the Chronicle makes clear, advocates for this change to direct distribution to the colleges stems in part from the desires of private institutions. According to the article, "Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said private institutions are historically at a disadvantage when federal grant programs are distributed through state governments.

"We are the last group on the totem pole," she said. "There is data that shows that, especially during tough economic times, private institutions are limited in grant opportunities. States like to assist public institutions."

Ummm... duh. As it should be. Want more public assistance, state or federal? Become a public institution.

Sure, states might supplant rather than supplement existing state funds with this money. That would be lousy, but hard to avoid-- and it's a problem common to all federal dollars pouring into states right now. Requiring a match, preferably out of operational funds, may help. Clearly, skipping the states won't solve the problem-- colleges and universities will similarly use the dollars to supplant their institutional money.

So, here's to hoping that Congress--and Senator Kennedy's HELP committee in particular--remains focused on the bottom line. Despite the chorus of "gimme gimme" sung by the schools meant to help them, policymakers need to stick to the goal of helping students, not colleges. The two, sadly, are not one and the same.