The New York Times
By: Tamar Lewin
December 5, 2011
College leaders meet with Obama to discuss costs and productivity
In a private meeting on Monday, President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, conferred with a dozen college presidents, mostly from public institutions, and leaders of two nonprofit education organizations, about how to curb the rising cost of college and improve graduation rates.
"It was an unusually interesting meeting, and not your usual list of college presidents," said Jane Wellman, founder and director of the nonprofit Delta Project, which studies college costs. "These were all people who had led institutions that had done something about reducing spending or improving student learning.
"There was good discussion on how we drive down tuition, and what the right role is for the federal government," she said.
The Obama administration's first salvo at college costs came last Tuesday, in a speech by Mr. Duncan in Las Vegas, in which the secretary prodded college officials to tackle the issue with greater creativity and urgency. In recent months, the cost of higher education has become a central issue of the Occupy movement, and one that arouses bipartisan concern.
Also last week, Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina who is chairwoman of a higher education subcommittee, held her own hearings on college costs.
At Monday's meeting, Mr. Obama spent about an hour with the educators, and Mr. Duncan remained after he left.
Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, which works to increase the number of college graduates, said there seemed to be some consensus at the White House meeting that the federal government should develop policies on financial aid, its biggest tool, to spur a higher graduation rates, whether by limiting the number of semesters for which students could receive aid, requiring them to attend full-time, or doling out aid bit by bit to discourage students from dropping out mid-semester, or other approaches.
"We discussed three core issues," Mr. Merisotis said. "One was responsibility for costs, and what the federal government can do to support innovation with incentive money, or something like Race to the Top. We talked a lot about increasing accountability in student aid. And third, there was conversation about what degrees mean." Mr. Merisotis and Ms. Wellman both testified at Representative Foxx's hearing.
Several of the participants said they discussed the importance of linking colleges with K-12 education, and a recognition that attempts to control costs would require a fundamental rethinking of the traditional model of higher education, making greater, and different, use of technology.
"If we're going to address the 37 million adults with some college and no degree, we can't just tweak the existing model," said Robert W. Mendenhall of Western Governors University, an online nonprofit university. "Mostly in higher education, technology is an add-on cost that doesn't change the model at all. We need to fundamentally change the faculty role, and use technology to do the teaching."
Larry D. Shinn, the president of Berea College, did not disagree. "We're structured in a 19th-century model, but I think we all know now that blended learning, combining technology and classroom learning, can let us educate for less cost," he said. "The question is how we get there from here."
Participants said that everyone understood that additional financing for education would be scarce in the coming years, making it crucial to improve affordability and graduation rates through innovation, including online learning.
"The key message was a challenge to us to question all our strongly held assumptions, including getting our faculty to think differently about teaching," said Jared L. Cohon, the president of Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed online classes that provide instructors real-time information about each student's progress. "I personally get very uncomfortable when people start talking about replacing faculty with technology," he said, "But I do think technology can help us educate more students faster and better."
The Carnegie Mellon courses are now being used at many universities, including in pilot programs at the three large statewide university systems -- Maryland, New York and Texas -- whose presidents all attended the meeting.