College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Ben Miller, Policy Advisor, Office for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, U.S. Department of Education

By Sara Mead — May 15, 2012 6 min read
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Concerns about the equity, quality and outcomes of K-12 education have long been a feature of education policy debates, but analysts and policymakers have recently come to realize that our higher education system also suffers from poor outcomes (fewer than 60 percent of new students graduate college within 6 years), huge disparities in quality across institutions, and rapidly increasing college costs. As a result, our international lead in higher education attainment, which powered economic growth in the later half of the 20th century, has disappeared. And if the United States is to meet President Obama’s goal of once again being first in the world in college completion, something’s got to change.

As a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, Ben Miller helps shape the administration’s efforts to improve college quality and access, and also advises on elementary and secondary education issues. I first met Miller when he was a recent college graduate working at the New America Foundation, and have been excited to see the progress of his career since then. A Baltimore native and graduate of Brown University, Miller, 27, lives in Washington, D.C. with his girlfriend. In his limited free time, he enjoys cooking, grilling, reading and eating Maryland Blue Crab.

Read the whole thing. You’re a Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education’s office for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development--what does that mean you actually do?
Unlike a lot of the other offices in the Department, my office doesn’t directly administer programs. Instead, we collaborate with offices across the Department to design competitions and programs to ensure that they’re all aligned with our bigger policy goals, such as greater college attainment. We also put together the President’s Budget Request for each year and then work on details for those new proposals. I personally work on issues in both K-12 and higher education. In K-12, I work on issues largely related to STEM and innovation, while in the higher education space I focus on college completion, affordability and productivity.

How did you come to work in education/your current job?
My freshman year of college I took a city politics course and our final assignment was to write a paper about a currently pressing urban issue. This was the spring of 2004, which was when the city of Baltimore was going through a huge budget crisis--basically what the fourth season of the Wire was based on. I was really struck how the whole problem came about the politics around the funding, rather than thinking about a solution that would minimize harm to the students.

And so when I graduated I was fortunate enough to find an education policy job at the New America Foundation. This was right after a number of college administrators had been caught accepting kickbacks from student loan companies in exchange for encouraging students to borrow from those businesses. I hadn’t thought much about higher education policy before that, but I really liked how there was both an education side and also a financing/cost side. I think the fact that students pay tuition and borrow for their education introduces interesting elements around value, cost, and consumer decision-making that creates interesting opportunities for public policy and different ways to encourage quality.

I entertained those dreams of law school that I’m pretty sure all liberal arts grads have at some point, but decided I really liked working in education policy. I ended up going to Education Sector, another think tank in town, where I had a chance to really dig deep into what can be done to boost completion and learn a lot more about available data. It was a great experience and nice to have so much freedom to pair what I’d learned about student financial aid with other issues. I really enjoyed my time there, but when an opportunity came along to join the Department, it felt like an opportunity to work at an exciting time in an Administration that I thought was doing some really good things in higher education that I just couldn’t turn down.

What is your biggest success to date in education?
Maybe not my biggest, but one of the coolest things was a couple months into my first job in education at the New America Foundation the Attorney General in Nebraska rescinded a $1 million fine that he had assessed against local student loan company Nelnet for its involvement in the student loan pay for play scandals. I wrote a blog post looking at Nelnet’s corporate giving to the attorney general, which got picked up in the local papers and he ended up reinstating the fine. I liked to joke that I cost someone $1 million just a few months out of college.

I’d leave the biggest success to be determined. We’ve got a pretty ambitious set of proposals out there right now to try and address college affordability and completion. Hopefully we’ll have some success on getting those enacted and then we could put them here.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing education in the United States today?
I think the biggest challenge we face is it’s pretty clear at every level of the system the quality of education available to those from lower income families simply isn’t the same as what’s out there for more affluent families. We’re clearly starting to make some progress on this in K-12 education with a greater focus on turning around the worst schools, getting the best teachers into the schools that are struggling and things like that, but we’re not really making progress in higher education yet. The best institutions don’t take in that many lower-income students and even if they took in more they aren’t big enough to educate everyone. We’ve done some great work on access, but we’re still far away from equality of access.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
I think we’re on the forefront of some really exciting times in the higher education space. We’re getting really close to having really meaningful data about post-graduation earnings and better measures of completion. Coupled with greater attention being paid now to getting students through to get their degree and concerns about States pulling back from higher education, I think we’re heading to a point where you’re going to see some really impressive changes that will result in a better education for students. And I’d just hope to be part of that and try to drive some of those conversations and policy changes.

Who are some individuals you admire in education, or individuals from other fields whose work shapes your work in education today?
Within education, I really admire the work done by Tony Carnevale at Georgetown, which I think has made the best case for why education matters, Kevin Carey, who I wish I could write as well as and who I had the pleasure to work for during my time at Education Sector. I think the work being done by Carol Twigg, Candace Thille, and others who are on the forefront of higher education innovation is really groundbreaking both for what its showing about how technology can personalize and improve education, but also address costs without sacrificing quality. And Bob Shireman, whose short stint at the Department I think is a great lesson about clear sense of purpose and how to get things done in a complex bureaucracy. And this isn’t a person, but I keep a copy of Crossing the Finish Line on my desk, which I think is the most comprehensive work on what we know about college completion that I’ve read.

As a public servant now, I’ve also come to think a lot about how to be effective within a really big and complex organization, especially after coming from small think tanks. And there some of the writing that Robert Reich did about his time while as Labor Secretary has been an interesting insight into power dynamics.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.