Newsday OpEd: Scott: Rethink the relationship of Uncle Sam and universities

Robert Scott, president, Adelphi University

OpEd appearing in Newsday:

Thursday, President Barack Obama advanced his plan to rate colleges on the basis of their costs and effectiveness and tying student aid to the rankings. The proposal comes as the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training continues its work on the ninth reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Among many complex issues, the president and Congress are both giving new attention to the roles of state and federal government in postsecondary education in America.

For nearly 200 years, the federal government viewed higher education as an instrument for public good. Over the past several decades, however, the emphasis has shifted to individual benefit instead of public good as the goal. Financial aid programs have been cut, and middle class families have been made to shoulder an increased burden.

So today, we hear calls for colleges and universities to reduce costs and student reliance on loans, as well as to increase enrollment, graduation rates, and support for communities and economic development. The expectation appears to be that these changes can be achieved with none of the incentives offered by government in the past.

But there are ways the federal government can work with colleges and universities to boost effectiveness while fostering engagement in public service.

First, provide financial support to states and individuals for a mandatory year of national community service between high school and college. This service year would help young people develop knowledge, skills, abilities and values outside of school by doing supervised, constructive work in communities and with organizations that need assistance. They would gain maturity needed to succeed in advanced study and save money for postsecondary opportunities.

Second, the government must target its research grants to take advantage of the expertise found in regional universities like Adelphi, Hofstra and St. John's. Each year, such institutions bring problem-solving capabilities to national issues, such as bullying, diabetes, obesity and autism. They achieve it in community-based ways that larger national research institutions often do not. The criteria for selecting such institutions for competitive grants could be based not only on their expertise, but on their success in enrolling students from low-income families and in graduating students in a timely manner without large amounts of debt.

Still another idea: Expand the grant and loan forgiveness programs for students who enter high-need professions such as social work and allied health in select geographic areas. We know that students' employment decisions are influenced by the debt they accumulate in college. This program could not only help students manage their debt but encourage them to consider less well-paid employment and still help stimulate the economy.

How do we pay for such initiatives? The national service year program would save money now lost by the more than 50 percent of students who enter college, use federal funds for two or three years, and do not finish. Those who do go to college will be more focused and graduate sooner, using less state and federal aid.

Focusing on regional research grants would require moderate amounts of foundation and government support -- most of which would be reallocated from current funds -- and reap significant results for communities, students and the nation.

The loan forgiveness program would address particular societal problems, just as previous federal programs have done, and could be funded by a combination of government, foundation and corporate support -- including the reallocation of federal financial aid now used by institutions with high loan default rates and low graduation rates.

The history of higher education in the United States is unique and noble. The federal government and institutions have worked together for the public good for more than two centuries. With these ideas and others, we can continue to increase access, improve affordability, enhance public accountability, and strengthen the impact of colleges and universities on society.

Robert A. Scott is the president of Adelphi University.