What is Obama’s higher education legacy?

Higher education thought leaders argue that the Obama Administration’s legacy found its success in the reversal of its initial initiatives.

The College Scorecard, Pell Grants and gap widening, funding help that went slightly awry—if you ask higher education thought leaders, they’ll probably argue that the Obama Administration initially set out to take a top-down, almost Big Brother-esque hand in reforming higher education; and when that faced opposition from the right and the left alike, performed a reversal in tactics that may have done some good.

“Many of the most positive aspects of the Administration’s higher-education policy legacy have actually been reversals of policies proposed—and in some cases enacted—by the same officials,” pens Autumn A. Arnett, a writer for The Atlantic. “The Administration has retreated from the College Scorecard it touted unrelentingly, which was presented as the answer to the nation’s college-affordability crisis.”

According to Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) President Emerita Carol Schneider, in an interview with Arnett, “the Obama Administration’s biggest failure was not in any policy it implemented, but in its failure to capitalize on a huge opportunity to enact meaningful education reform: ‘The big reform that we needed in higher ed would have put learning outcomes [as] the drivers. Instead, we ended up with a more technocratic approach to competency-based learning that I think is not going to be as fruitful as it could have been…’”

[For the K-12 version of this story, click here]

Below, the editors of eCampus News have compiled a brief outline of the Obama Administration’s most notable and/or controversial higher education initiatives pulled from reputable sources of information; but we’d like to know: What do you believe will be Obama’s legacy for higher education? Leave your comment in the section below and/or take our poll here:

(Next page: The Obama Administration’s higher education legacy)

The Higher Education Act

His Administration will be the first that did not manage to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). Congress is partly to blame, but reauthorizing the HEA was never really a significant priority for the Obama Administration, and they never advanced serious, definite proposals to make it happen. [Source: Higher Education Today]

Pell Grants and Families

Federal spending on higher education has increased significantly.When the Obama Administration took office in January 2009, funding for Pell Grants stood at $17 billion. Today it is roughly $30 billion, a 77 percent increase. The maximum Pell Grant award went from $4,731 in 2009 to $5,815 today. [Source: Higher Education Today]

Federal tax provisions to help families meet college expenses have almost doubled from $18.3 billion to $35.1 billion. Much of this is attributable to the enactment of the American Opportunity Tax Credit in 2009. Today, this tax benefit alone totals $16.6 billion. [Source: Higher Education Today]

However, when it comes to lessening institutional resource gaps Pell Grants may have done more harm than good. “To the extent that you have two types of institutions, one that’s on the 10 mile marker and the other that’s at the zero, and you give them both the same help, you’ve not narrowed the gap,” said Schneider. “Harvard doesn’t need an infusion of cash from the federal government—Howard does. So the failure to put money into the institutions and instead to rely on increasing [student-centered programs like] Pell grants really misses the point. An investment in historically underfunded institutions like HBCUs is necessary in addition to programs like Pell.” [Source: The Atlantic]

Overall Student Loans

The Obama Administration concluded that it would be cheaper and more efficient if the government made all loans directly to the students, instead of through banks, because there would be no subsidy to private financial institutions and other middlemen. The Administration used most of the savings from this change—some $68 billion over ten years—to finance an expansion of the Pell Grant program. Without the adoption of 100 percent direct lending, the expansion of the Pell Grant Program noted above would have been seriously constrained. Federal student loans also increased, going from $78 billion to about $96 billion today. [Source: Higher Education Today]

However, some argue that while removing private banks from the federal student-loan process was a win for consumers, increasing access to federal loans for low-income family students doesn’t actually solve the college-affordability problem; it widens the already-growing race-based wealth gap. [Source: The Atlantic]

Additional Funding

Federal spending on scientific research conducted campuses has grown from $25.9 billion in 2008 to over $30.2 billion, a gain of 17 percent. That amount may increase further when the fiscal 2017 spending bills are finalized. Federal spending on veterans’ higher education benefits went from $3.6 billion overall in 2009 to an expected $15.2 billion that is expected to be awarded to veterans in the current academic year—a more than threefold increase. [Source: Higher Education Today]

(Next page: Completion, safety and overall regulation)

College Completion

Another area of reversal in is the Obama Administration’s goal switch from access and choice to access and completion. The original goal made in 2009 to have the U.S. with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 was abandoned. Instead, an emphasis was made the second term toward graduation or completion. The effort has been complicated due to a lack of standard metrics, reporting, and accountability practices. [Source: Higher Education Today]

Community Colleges

During his second term, the Obama Administration proposed the American Graduation Initiative to invest in community colleges and help American workers get the skills and credentials they need to succeed. The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act includes $2 billion over four years for community college and career training. These resources aim to help community colleges and other institutions develop, improve, and provide education and training, suitable for workers who are eligible for trade adjustment assistance. [Source: The Department of Education]

Regulation and For-Profits

Over the course of eight years, the Administration produced nearly two dozen major new regulations affecting colleges and universities. There is a growing recognition that such a process may not be permissible under the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Many of these regulations, which tend to affect all higher education institutions, especially affect for-profits. Starting with a negotiated rule-making process in late 2009, “the Administration sought to tighten the screws on proprietary institutions.” [Source: Higher Education Today]


“Through detailed guidance documents and investigations at more than 200 institutions, the Obama Administration made preventing campus sexual assault a signature issue of its Education Department,” writes Jake New for InsideHigherEd. “The Administration’s updated interpretation of the federal gender discrimination law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 allowed the White House to sharply increase the enforcement efforts of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The intensified focus on campus sexual assault and Title IX prompted an outpouring of complaints and lawsuits against colleges and universities over claims they mishandled reports of sexual violence.” [Source: InsideHigherEd]

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