Obama, Rubio Call for Changes in Federal Higher Ed Funding

President Barack Obama and the current front-runner for the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination Senator Marco Rubio seemed to have found a point of agreement on how federal funds for higher education are allocated to schools. During the State of the Union address, Obama said that Congress should consider things like affordability and student outcomes when it determines how more than $175 billion of annual federal student aid is apportioned to the schools around the country.

This goal could be accomplished in one of several ways – either by adding factors like affordability and student success directly to the existing funding formula, or by just throwing out the currently used formula and designing a brand new one.

The theme was picked up by Rubio in his SOTU response which aired later that same evening. He also called on the changes to be made to how the money is disbursed, especially when it came to non-traditional academic programs such as the ones offering distance learning or those exchanging college credit for work experience.

The White House won't elaborate on the changes to accreditation that the president has in mind. Indeed, it's not clear the administration even has a fully fleshed-out proposal. Nor is congressional action imminent. Last year, Obama legislative proposals to put more strings on college aid went nowhere.

Many believe that it is long past the time that the accreditation system – in place since the 19th century – got a second look. Although initially serving as an effort to add a peer-review component to the assessment of college quality, it has come to be something that the government relies on when it makes determinations about funding for higher education.

However, how well can a system designed in the 1800s work in the academic environment of the 21st century? Not very well, as it turns out.

The first threat was abuse. Some for-profit schools enrolled students who paid tuition with government-guaranteed loans, never finished and stiffed taxpayers. "Every bad thing you read about happened in an accredited institution," says Kevin Carey, director of education policy at the nonpartisan New America Foundation.

The second, more recent threat is the explosion of online courses offered by the nation's most prestigious universities—the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that herald the biggest changes in teaching since the overhead projector.

It's not easy to imagine what role federal funding can play in the growth of MOOC providers since the courses they offer are mainly free and almost none offer college credit. However, even though the way forward isn't quite clear yet, it is obvious that while MOOCs and learning institutions that rely on the internet are the future, the current accreditation system is the past and needs to be dropped and replaced.

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