Ford School faculty, alumnus on President Obama's higher education legacy

September 29, 2016

Jack Stripling of The Chronicle of Higher Education tells the story of “Obama’s Legacy: An Unlikely Hawk on Higher Ed.” In doing so, he seeks input from the “foot soldiers of Obama,” including two Ford School faculty members, James Kvaal and Betsey Stevenson, and one alumnus, Jordan Matsudaira (PhD '05).

Stripling delves into the effort by the president’s team to hold colleges responsible for the quality of education they offer. At first, the team pursued a ‘college-ratings plan’ with the intent to divide federal funding for schools according to their performance. With $31 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 going toward helping students go to college, Kvaal explains, “We felt pressure to demonstrate those dollars were being well spent.”

However, as Matsudaira notes, the team worried about the unintended consequences of a ratings system that might be based on faulty data or create incentives for colleges to manipulate their score. Eventually, the president and his team decided to turn their efforts toward creating a database with information for each college, such as post-graduation earnings, instead of explicitly ranking schools, and letting consumers “vote with their feet.”

Stripling argues that President Obama’s higher education reform efforts are situated within a “surging wave of accountability that will only strengthen when he is gone." For higher education, he writes, "the end of Mr. Obama’s tenure may mark the beginning of what’s to come.”

James Kvaal, former deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and former deputy under secretary of education, now serves at the Ford School as a Towsley Foundation Policymaker in Residence.

Jordan D. Matsudaira, chief staff economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers, is a Ford School alumnus (PhD ’05).

Betsey Stevenson is a former member of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers and is an associate professor of public policy and economics at the Ford School.