When President Obama took office in 2009, he proposed the U.S. regain its leadership in higher education by increasing college degree attainment from 40 percent to 60 percent, adding an additional 10 million Americans ages 25-34 with an associate or bachelor’s degree.   Using government data and third party survey results, we have evaluated the president’s progress in moving toward his “Big Goal” along four dimensions: enrollments, degrees, cost, and advocacy.

1)     Do we have more people enrolled in higher education today than in 2009?

Yes. But the increase in enrollment, 3.5 percent between 2009 and 2012 (the most recent year for which NCES data are available) is nowhere near sufficient to meet President Obama’s aggressive goal.  Admittedly, the decline in overall postsecondary enrollment in 2010-2011 and a particular downturn within the two year sector skews the overall picture. A tough economic climate hasn’t helped either, and an apparent decline in employer tuition assistance hinders adults with some college from completing their credentials. 

2)     Do more adults (over 18) have a degree of any type?

Yes.  And here there’s mostly good news.  Over half of the U.S. adult population has some type of college.  In 2012 (reflecting the most current Census data), 133 million people fell into this category, up from 125 million in 2009, It is the result, no doubt, of combined stakeholder efforts, including the Lumina Foundation’s Adult Learners completion agenda, the Gates Foundation’s Completion by Design community college effort, advocacy by non-profits and businesses to protect Pell grant funding for low income students, and efforts by the Federal government to streamline access to financial aid and college information.

Moreover, the president appears to be achieving his 2020 goal of creating 5 million additional community college graduates.  Between 2009 and 2012, the number with associate’s degrees grew from 19 to nearly 21.5 million, and an additional 1.8 million non-degree certificate conferrals were awarded.

The bad news comes when we analyze the goal of increasing two and four year degree attainment by 60 percent by 2020.  According to the 2012 Census, only 37 percent of the over-18 population possessed at least an associate’s degree, representing just a 1.5 percent increase from 2009.  Research from the Lumina Foundation confirms this—growth in adult (ages 25-34) degree attainment between 2009 and 2011 (the most recent year for which it has data) has been incremental, inching up from 38.1 to 38.7 percent.

3)     How has the price of education changed over the past five years?

According to Bureau of Labor data, reflecting constant dollars, the average cost of attendance for public institutions has increased 13.7 percent from 2009 to 2013. Over the same period, private, non-profit schools have increased 7.9 percent, while for-profit privates have actually decreased 11.7 percent.

The higher rate of cost among public institutions can be attributed to state legislatures’ decreasing state appropriations, forcing increases in tuition and fees to off-set costs. At the Federal level, the U.S. Department of Education has issued hundreds of new regulations since the President took office, each of which has carried compliance costs. The on-again, off-again rules requiring online programs (now offered by 80% of institutions) to be reviewed and authorized in 54 jurisdictions has alone added millions of dollars in new costs.

4) How well has the President rallied the higher education community to support his agenda?

According to a 2013 Gallup – Inside Higher Ed Survey, support for key elements of the administration’s higher education agenda is weak. Only 2 percent think that the president’s plan to make college more affordable will be effective. The Department of Education’s College Rating System has received an equally poor review, with 2 percent agreeing that students will use it.

One college president offered what appears to be a widely held opinion, “We sincerely want to do our part in achieving the attainment goal, we know that it is in the best interest of our country… but it is difficult to do so when our work is continually made more difficult by the Department of Education, and we are regularly criticized (by the administration and Congress) for not doing enough – be it containing cost, increasing graduation rates or teaching specific skills.  Everyone wants us to do more with less, while also being more “accountable.”

The President’s Report Card

Enrollments: C

Degrees: B

Cost: D

Advocacy: F

Of course, there have been many factors over which the president has had little control that have worked against at least the first three objectives. But, the Department of Education has made clear that the unforeseen and the absence of control should not be considered when rating performance.

Ebersole is president of Excelsior College. Contardo is special assistant to the president at Excelsior’s Washington Center. Daniels is assistant vice president for Institutional Research and Effectiveness.