The 2016 Candidates on “The K-12 – Higher Education Reform Loop”

2016 Presidential Elections

October 5, 2015

By Michael Dannenberg 

To date, the 2016 candidates have been largely silent on K-12 education policy beyond noting general support for teachers or their position on Common Core standards. On higher education, they’ve been more active. But they have not followed President Obama’s lead of advancing massive new resources for higher education coupled with outcome-oriented reforms. Rather, they’ve played to type: Democratic candidates are calling for large new resource investments to support college affordability (Clinton & Sanders) while Republicans are emphasizing the need for reforms like an increase in postsecondary education suppliers (Rubio) and faster time to degree (Bush). Clinton has come closest, but no one has proposed a robust increase in resources and reform.


Debate Podium Resources or Reform



The 2016 candidates are reflecting where their activist voter bases are on higher education: they (voters, that is) think young people are priced out of college and that for everyone college costs way too much. Voters also think that by and large higher education does a good job educating students. They’re not 100% wrong, but voters’ perceptions of higher education are very much under-informed.

Over 75 percent of young people go on to postsecondary education. They may not do it right away and they often may go to trade schools or community college, but they do go. The vast majority of students attend public colleges (42 percent at community colleges and another 33 percent at four-year schools) that aren’t that expensive when you look at just net tuition and fees. Even adding in room and board, net price after all grant, scholarships, and tax benefits to attend a public institution averages around $11,000 a year. By contrast, non-profit privates and for-profit trade schools are exponentially more expensive.Net Price Publics Chart

It’s the cost of the private non-profit and for-profit colleges though that animates the public’s attention and receives disproportionate major media coverage. The Democratic candidates’ solution is more financial aid overall and more financial aid for families higher up the income scale. The Republicans’ solution is to expand the number of providers of higher education to drive down price via the market’s invisible hand.

Looking Under the Hood

At the moment, candidates in both parties (not to mention reporters covering them, attt-ahem) are missing the connection between college affordability and college quality and the underlying link to elementary and secondary education. From a pure policy standpoint, college completion and college quality are our top higher education problems – much more challenging than the college access issue. Four out of ten students seeking a four-year bachelor’s degree drop out within six years of initial enrollment. Some eight in ten associate’s degree seeking students fail to complete an academic program within three years of initial enrollment.

Even those who do obtain a bachelor or associate’s degree take on average 5.1 years and 3.2 years to do so. The value proposition associated with college would be better, more affordable, if there were a higher likelihood of completing a degree following the investment because it’s degree attainment that dramatically affects lifetime earnings. And the upfront investment in obtaining a college degree could be much less (20 percent less in the case of bachelor degree recipients, 33 percent less in the case of associate degree recipients) if we could just get students to complete their postsecondary degree programs on regular time.

Answer to the College Completion & College Cost Problem

The number one indicator of college completion is high school curricular rigor – more important than race, family income, and parental education. Unfortunately, as we all know, high school rigor is low. Estimates vary depending on how you cut the data, but between 20 to 40 percent of postsecondary students have to take at least one remedial course while in college. Students and taxpayers are paying colleges to teach what students should have learned in high school. And the colleges aren’t doing a great job at getting those behind up to par. Those who have to take a remedial course at the postsecondary level are substantially less likely to graduate.

Related: Education Chart of the Day: Role of High School Academic Preparation in College Completion

The single greatest thing we could do to boost college completion and relatively quickly increase affordability is to get all students on a college prep track in high school – at least as a default – and upgrade, if not obviate, postsecondary remedial (a.k.a. ‘developmental’) education. On the flip side, my colleague Charlie Barone and I would argue that one of the greatest things we could do to boost college readiness and K-12 student achievement is to ensure that higher education is producing quality new teachers ready to teach on day one. We submit teacher preparation programs should be held accountable for the success of program graduates in raising K-12 student achievement. Think of it as a K-12 – Higher Ed Loop.

Related: The Obama Teacher Education Accountability Regulation

Question for the Candidates

The 2016 candidates aren’t saying it, yet. But there is a symbiotic relationship between K-12 education, particularly secondary schools, and higher education. K-12’s product is a key higher education input (college-ready students) and higher education’s product is a key K-12 input (future teachers ready to teach on day one.) The broadly stated path to improvement is the same in each sector: resources and reform. Our challenge is to use resources in each sector to drive reforms in the other and vice-versa.

Maybe that should be the education question asked at the next Presidential primary debate: How do you propose to use resources in K-12 and higher education to drive needed reforms within each sector and in the other? Or to boil it down even more:


How do you propose to make college cheaper and better? Both parts – cheaper and better.

 Our answer: resources and reform (pp. 14-18).