This post ran first on the Future Tense blog.
The opposition response to the State of the Union is normally a time to denounce the president and all his works. For the most part, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., kept to form last night, repeatedly slamming Barack Obama for his big government, job-killing agenda. But there was one area in which, perhaps without realizing it, Rubio and Obama agree: They both want to unleash a wave of innovation that could transform American higher education and finally bring the eternal problem of rising college prices to heel.
In his speech, Obama put colleges on notice about “skyrocketing costs [that] price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt.” The blame, the president said, lies on campus. “Taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down.”
But Obama’s truly revolutionary proposal was kept inside the more detailed policy agenda released by the White House directly after the speech. The administration proposed “establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.” The existing accreditation system is a cabal of incumbent colleges and universities that controls access to the $140 billion that the federal government disburses to college students every year in grants and loans. Breaking up this monopoly would have far-reaching effects on the higher education market. Most importantly, it would create a level financial playing field for firms that provider higher education services but aren’t “colleges” in the traditional sense of the word.
Rubio’s response? He wants to do exactly the same thing. “We need student aid that does not discriminate against programs that non-traditional students rely on,” said Rubio, “like online courses, or degree programs that give you credit for work experience.”