Q&A

How to Put Colleges on the Hook

The White House is working on a rating system for colleges aimed at showing whether students are getting their money’s worth.

Cecilia Muñoz, the director ofthe White House Domestic Policy Council.   
©2013 Richard A. Bloom
Nov. 14, 2013, 4 p.m.

With minor­it­ies on track to be­come a ma­jor­ity of the na­tion’s un­der-18 pop­u­la­tion be­fore 2020, clos­ing the gaps in edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment between them and white stu­dents looms as an in­creas­ingly ur­gent chal­lenge. Cecil­ia Muñoz, the dir­ect­or of the White House Do­mest­ic Policy Coun­cil, spoke last week with At­lantic Me­dia Ed­it­or­i­al Dir­ect­or Ron­ald Brown­stein about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agenda for nar­row­ing those dis­par­it­ies, at the re­launch event for Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Next Amer­ica pro­ject. Ed­ited ex­cerpts of the con­ver­sa­tion fol­low.

Where are we mak­ing pro­gress in re­du­cing the gaps in edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment and skills, and where are we still strug­gling?

We are mak­ing pro­gress in col­lege par­ti­cip­a­tion. We know the Latino num­bers, in par­tic­u­lar, are go­ing up. And we’re do­ing bet­ter in terms of stu­dent per­form­ance over­all. Those num­bers are creep­ing up. But they’re creep­ing up in a way that demon­strates that the ra­cial at­tain­ment gaps aren’t nar­row­ing nearly as quickly as we need them to be.

Where could we ex­pand our ef­fort to pro­duce the most bang for our buck?

In my view, that’s pretty clearly in early-child­hood edu­ca­tion. The re­turn on in­vest­ment is huge. And the like­li­hood of chil­dren ac­tu­ally ar­riv­ing at kinder­garten ready to learn in­creases dra­mat­ic­ally. Without it, we end up with dis­par­it­ies already at kinder­garten that we may nev­er catch up on. When the pres­id­ent asked his team last year, “If we’re go­ing to be re­du­cing in­equal­ity “¦ where do we get the best bang for our buck?” the an­swer to that is preschool.

The fund­ing mech­an­ism for your uni­ver­sal-preschool pro­pos­al is an in­crease in the to­bacco tax. Are you open to oth­er means of fin­an­cing?

This is am­bi­tious, and it costs money. We found a way to pay for it by in­creas­ing the to­bacco tax. That ends up hav­ing im­port­ant re­turns for the health of kids. We cal­cu­lated that about a quarter of a mil­lion young people would not start smoking as a res­ult of this par­tic­u­lar in­crease in the to­bacco tax. But if there are oth­er ways to pay for it, we are ab­so­lutely open to that.

The pres­id­ent has had pretty am­bi­tious pro­pos­als to tie stu­dent aid in high­er edu­ca­tion to out­comes. Where does that stand?

We’ve already ex­pan­ded stu­dent aid, things like Pell Grants and the Amer­ic­an Op­por­tun­ity Tax Cred­it, which have had a very im­port­ant im­pact in mak­ing col­lege ac­cess­ible. But at the same time, I think we agree that stu­dent aid by it­self isn’t go­ing to solve this prob­lem.

We can­not get in a situ­ation in which the cost of a col­lege edu­ca­tion is un­at­tain­able for a middle-class fam­ily or for fam­il­ies strug­gling to get to the middle class, be­cause that’s how you get there. What the pres­id­ent has put for­ward is this no­tion that when you as a par­ent or as a stu­dent are shop­ping around for an edu­ca­tion, you need the same kind of in­form­a­tion that we have when we’re shop­ping for a re­fri­ger­at­or or a car, just in terms of value. What is your loan likely to look like, if you need loans; what are your pay­ments go­ing to look like; and what kind of value are you get­ting for your money? The goal frankly is to put states and col­leges and uni­versit­ies on the hook to an­swer the ques­tion, “What am I get­ting for my dol­lars?”

So the pres­id­ent has pro­posed and we are de­vel­op­ing a rat­ing sys­tem which is frankly in­ten­ded to com­pete with U.S. News & World Re­port‘s rat­ing sys­tem, which in many ways val­ues the wrong things. It val­ues se­lectiv­ity, for ex­ample, as a meas­ure, as op­posed to how many stu­dents gradu­ate on time and are they able to pay off their loans suc­cess­fully. It’s a big in­vest­ment, and we think we can provide in­form­a­tion which can both help stu­dents and fam­il­ies make bet­ter-in­formed de­cisions and help with this no­tion of driv­ing costs down.

How will this rat­ing sys­tem work?

We’re de­vel­op­ing it now. It is im­port­ant to make sure that this rat­ing sys­tem doesn’t cre­ate in­cent­ives to not bring on board the very stu­dents we want to serve: the first ones in their fam­il­ies to go to col­lege, the ones who need fin­an­cial as­sist­ance. So we’re go­ing to meas­ure how suc­cess­ful you are not just in en­rolling those stu­dents but also in mak­ing sure they gradu­ate. Be­cause right now, our stu­dent aid pays for in­puts — how many stu­dents en­roll — but it doesn’t pay for how much pro­gress you make, and we want to drive the sys­tem in that dir­ec­tion. We’re en­ga­ging the high­er-edu­ca­tion sec­tor very ag­gress­ively to help us de­vel­op this rat­ing sys­tem. But it will be de­veloped by the end of next year, and it will be in place for the fol­low­ing school year.

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