As a rule, speechwriters put the most dramatic parts of a president’s agenda front and center in televised speeches, leaving the boring policy details to the supplemental notes. Last night, the Obama administration did the opposite: the higher education section of the State of the Union address was much the same as last year’s, focusing intensely on college affordability and putting institutions on notice that the gravy train of public support for rising prices would have to end. But the truly earth-shaking policy initiatives were left for the supplemental policy document released directly after the speech, in which the Obama administration proposed the biggest change to federal higher education policy since at least the Higher Education Amendments of 1972.
Those laws created what would become the Pell Grant program for low-income students, which has grown to a $40 billion pillar of government support for higher learning. The Pell grant is a voucher system--any eligible student can use their grant to pay tuition at any accredited college of their choice.
The key words in that sentence are “accredited” and “college.” There are lots of ways to learn, but Pell grants can only be used to purchase learning from organizations that fit the model of colleges as we know them today. And who decides, legally, what a “college” is? Accreditors, a group of independent non-profit organizations run by...colleges as we know them today. By controlling access to Pell grants, student loans, and other forms of financial aid, existing colleges determine the price, structure, and character of higher learning. This regulatory monopoly has had severe and sadly predictable negative effects on price and innovation in higher learning. To compete on a level financial playing field, you have to teach, spend, and ultimately charge like established institutions.
The Obama administration wants to change all of that: