The Obama State of the Union line that's attracting the most attention is the $9-an-hour minimum wage. But the policy initiative that's most illuminating in a certain way is the college scorecard.
The minimum wage is certainly telling. A friend emailed the day after the speech to ask, if the president really wanted to help the poor, why didn't he simply propose waiving, or cutting, the payroll tax for low-wage workers?
The answer, of course, is that the proposal isn't about raising up the poor; it's about taking things away from the rich by forcing employers—i.e., small business owners or corporate shareholders—to pay a higher price for labor. Obama's goal isn't simply to help the poor, it's to reduce income inequality by redistributing wealth.
Less easy to pigeonhole ideologically was the president's promise that, "tomorrow, my administration will release a new 'College Scorecard' that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria—where you can get the most bang for your educational buck."
Sure, on one level, this is a classic display of left-wing, big government hubris. There's already, after all, a highly robust market of information for students and parents choosing colleges or graduate schools. The U.S. News college and graduate school rankings seem to be right up there with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in terms of newsstand special-issue money-makers. The U.S. News rankings are so influential that colleges have been caught lying to try to influence their rankings, or, more subtly, adjusting their policies to win better scores. The Washington Monthly magazine has its own set of rankings. A former higher education reporter for the New York Times, Edward Fiske, publishes a college guidebook. The staff of the Yale Daily News publishes its own annual Insider's Guide to colleges.
Obama apparently thinks that the federal government should enter the college guide business to compete with the private sector players who are already there. Where in the Constitution this power is enumerated is anyone's guess. The administration placed such a high priority on the effort that the new federal College Scorecard ran right from the White House Web site, rather than from the Department of Education.
What I found most striking about the federal college scorecard was the narrowly vocational focus. "Knowledge and skills for the jobs of the future," is the way the White House Web site puts it. The final item on the scorecard for Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., for Kaplan University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and for just about every other university I checked is "employment," and reports that "the U.S. Department of Education is working to provide information about the average earnings of former undergraduate students at [name of university] who borrowed Federal student loans."
Here, too, the government is competing with the private sector: a New York Times article noted that "PayScale, a company that analyzes payroll data for millions of workers, publishes annual rankings of colleges based on graduates' long-term earnings."
Maybe some students or parents will decide which college to attend based on where the graduates make the most money. But even that doesn't necessarily tell you much about how much value is being added by the university. Most students with the high school records to get admitted to Harvard or Yale or similar institutions would probably do pretty well in life even if they went to college somewhere else. And if "long-term earnings" are the only criterion, the dropouts—Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell—are the ones to emulate.
What's more, "Average earnings" or "long-term earnings" are imperfect measures. What about the lifetime earnings of some of my Harvard classmates who have chosen to be stay-at-home moms? Or the many other college graduates who pursue careers—the priesthood, the Peace Corps, teaching—whose psychic value isn't fully measured by salary statistics? The pediatrician who chooses to set up shop not in a wealthy suburb but in a poor inner city, the lawyer who goes to work as a prosecutor or for a non-profit?
President Obama, a former community organizer, now wants to help parents choose colleges for their children on the basis of how much money the children might earn when they get out. To anyone whose college career involved courses in moral philosophy, or in art history, or literature, the idea of choosing a college on the basis of future earning potential has to seem narrow, at least. I'm not saying the job and earnings prospects of college graduates should be ignored by those considering enrolling, but it's only one factor among many, and not necessarily the most important.
By all means, use the Internet and "big data" to bring more accountability and transparency to higher education. But a narrow focus on future earnings is misguided. This isn't necessarily a partisan issue. But the political party that tries to cater to "values voters" might consider what it is about a college education that's valuable other than "knowledge and skills for the jobs of the future." The answer may vary based on the individual or the family, which is why the college scorecards that really matter in the end won't be the ones prepared by President Obama's White House, but by students and their families.