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View from the Hill

Q&A With Prof. Eric Houck: How could college funding change?

Eric Houck is an associate professor in educational leadership and policy at UNC. His research specializes in education funding with a focus on K-12 education. He previously served as an English teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and served on the state of Georgia’s grant-writing committee for the Race to the Top program. View from the Hill spoke with him about President Barack Obama’s plan to lower higher education costs.

View From the Hill: The Administration rolled out its Pay-as-You-Earn plan. How will the Administration open up its Pay as You Earn to more students? Is it sustainable and will it even have a net effect in helping students pay off their debt?

Eric Houck: I think it will help students pay off their debt because they’re going to be able recalibrate their monthly payments based on income. But I think more importantly, from a government’s perspective, it’s going to lower the default rate on student loans by making payments easier on the students on the front end after they graduated.

So, I think the default on student loans is a real issue they’re trying to address in addition to making it more affordable and easier for students to repay, they want to be able to get their money back. I think it’s sustainable as a model. I know there are some imbalances, but like a lot of stuff coming from the Obama Administration, they’re having problems with uptake — that is getting people to know about it and buy into it.

VFTH: President Obama’s rating system seems very focused on outcomes. How could this change universities in a positive or negative way?

EH: We’ve seen this a lot with outcomes focus standards-based reform in K-12. The positives of any type of outcome-based accountability or rating system is that it focuses everyone’s attention on some key goals of the organization. We might call them core technology of the organization.

The bad aspect — the negative aspect of it — is that a lot of things that aren’t the core outcomes become less important and under-emphasized.

So in K-12 for example, we ask schools to do a lot of things for kids, not just produce high test scores, but focusing on test scores leads to what we call a narrowing of the curriculum, and you can imagine that something like that would happen in higher education as well. I think a lot of administrators would say they not only have an academic mission for students, but a dimension of socialization, broadening cultural perspectives — a whole host of outcomes that may not be included in the kind of things they are talking about in the rating system.

VFTH: What are some factors in increasing higher education costs that the Obama Administration is overlooking in its proposals?

EH: I think a couple things. I think one of the things that the Obama Administration is not thinking through very well is the role of states and state budgets in relationship between colleges and their tuition. I think (UNC President Thomas) Ross has been clear that he would rather not raise tuition but in order to meet rising costs, he would need a greater subsidy from the state. The UNC system is a public system and that is not an unreasonable expectation.

So if state budgets and state legislatures are not providing adequate funding for public higher education, you’re going to see rising tuition costs, and I think you’re going to see rising costs in general. And this might be getting too philosophical or too far afield because people kind of unquestionably desire a higher education degree for entry into the job market.

So what you see a lot of jobs in the private sector, who instead of coming up with a real thoughtful list of job requirements, will simply substitute in possession of a bachelor’s degree. So that’s driving demand for people to get bachelor’s degrees, and higher demand is always going to drive up costs because it puts pressure on the system.

VFTH: You said the measurements could lead to narrower focus. It sounds similar to Governor McCrory’s on helping students get jobs. Should jobs and employability be the only quantifying measures?

EH: My understandings in standards of higher education and I think the university has been working on a funding model that rewarded increases in enrollment. So one thing you could look at as a quantifiable measure would be enrollment numbers. Are we getting more folks in the door? Are we getting more folks from underrepresented populations? Are we getting more folks who are first generation college attendees? That’s like a social mission as well as an academic mission, and that doesn’t have anything to do with the curriculum.

But I think a lot of folks are more interested, and especially folks who study particularly under represented groups and minority groups who go into higher education, not so interested in enrollment numbers but particularly interested in matriculation and graduation numbers. It’s one thing to let a whole bunch of people into college, provide them with financial aid and hook them onto loans, but then if they actually don’t matriculate through and graduate, then they don’t have a college degree and they have loan debt. And in some senses if they are first generation to attend higher education, they might not have a support network in place to help them navigate some of that stuff. So enrollment and graduation could be quantifiable aspects of what they’re looking for.

Other aspect that got more towards the curriculum, in terms of what universities need to be providing, if colleges went that way I think it would be narrowing of the curriculum. We’ve seen that kind of thing in K-12 education where focus on reading and math has led to a de-emphasis on social studies and arts and physical education for example. But I haven’t seen any proposal that’s really gone all the way defining what sort of curriculum we should be using at the university level.

Getting to Gov. McCrory’s comment: Obviously, there’s a lot more that we want higher education to do for students. It’s not just a vocational aspiration; it’s something about building a high quality citizen, a thoughtful participant in a democratic process. Someone who can understand different perspectives and have some degree of empathy, walk in the world with some appreciation with art and culture however they choose to define that goes simply beyond mere academics.

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