Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Obama Official: To Lower Cost of College, States Must Spend More

U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell spoke at EWA's 69th annual National Seminar in Boston. Source: U.S. Department of Education

“The most expensive degree is the one you don’t get.” That’s Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell quoting former U.S. Ed Secretary Arne Duncan at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar on Monday. Mitchell’s talk focused on how to prevent such a costly slip.

The first step, according to Mitchell, is for colleges and universities to redesign their programs around what he calls the “new normal students.” These students are less likely to be 18 years old, and more likely to be a returning veteran, a single mom or a 50-year-old displaced worker looking for new skills. These students have to juggle work, family and other obligations, along with their course load.

“These are the majority of students in college today and we should focus work on improving access for them,” says Mitchell.

How can postsecondary institutions do that? Mitchell points to online learning as one way to help this massive population of college students learn on their own time and at their own pace. That “a-ha” moment came when a student told him about the University of Wisconsin’s online Flexible Option program: “This is the first time that my education has been tailored to my life rather than the other way around,” Mitchell recalled the student saying.

The talk’s moderator, Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, questioned Mitchell about the Administration’s enthusiasm for online learning even in the face of unimpressive outcomes. Jaschik used Arizona State University as an example. He said there was a lot of hype around freshmen taking MOOCs. Many students enrolled but completion rates were often in the single digits.. What’s more, a 2015 study of California community colleges showed that those who took online courses were less likely to graduate. Jaschik asked Mitchell if the best way to help underserved students might be through smaller class sizes and more academic advisers, rather than through online programs.

Mitchell agreed that online-only programs often have been ineffective for low-income and first-generation college students. A mixture of online and traditional learning might be a better way to go, he said. Mitchell pointed to CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) as a successful example.

“We’re really interested in the spirit of innovation and redesign,” says Mitchell. But he stressed that the Obama administration along with colleges and universities must evaluate all experiments and learn from any missteps.

Arizona State University and Georgia State University are examples of higher-education institutions that are finding success in redesigning their outreach and enrollment of low-income students, according to Mitchell. Georgia State, for example, assembled 10 years of student performance data and is using that information to make predictions about how students will fare and identify for them which courses they should take to earn a degree.

“There has to be constant feedback on how well students are doing and even if students step off course, there have to be roadmaps and road signs to help get them to end of their journey,” says Mitchell.

The Education Department is also working to help underserved students, Mitchell says. He pointed to the simpler FAFSA form, and to the fact that high school students enrolled in dual-enrollment programs can now benefit from Pell grants. Prison inmates can, too. Plus, the Department created the First in the World Program to encourage colleges to rethink pathways to graduation for underserved students, setting aside $135 million over the past two years for this program and requesting another $100 million to advance the program for next year, according to Mitchell.

Under gainful-employment regulations, the Obama Administration is requiring for-profit colleges to provide information on program cost, number of students who graduate, and how much they earn. Mitchell says we should see the results of that data by June.

Responding to a reporter’s question about how higher-education coverage could improve, Mitchell had two suggestions. He said media misses the mark when it comes to reporting on the full cost of college. Tuition, room and board do not constitute the full burden for a family. There are hidden costs that Mitchell would like to see reporters cover, such as textbooks and commuting. Some schools like Georgia State, for instance, provide small grants to students experiencing personal financial hardship. Let’s say a student’s car breaks down and she can’t get to school. The microgrant can help pay for the repair and get the student back in class.

Mitchell would also like to see more coverage of the states’ role in the rising cost of college tuition. He put states on notice for spending less per student than they did before the recession, even though state disinvestment one of the main drivers of rising tuition costs. Mitchell said that until states get back in the game, the price of a college degree will continue to rise.