President Obama said he’s on a personal mission to combat soaring tuition and to make higher education more affordable.
Keith Srakocic • Associated Press,
Obama unveils broad new plan to make college more affordable
- Article by: Philip Rucker and Nick Anderson
- Washington Post
- August 23, 2013 - 11:07 AM
BUFFALO, N.Y. – President Obama declared a crisis in the soaring cost of higher education Thursday and unveiled a broad new plan that aims to make college education more affordable by tying federal financial aid to new college ratings.
The plan, which Obama rolled out as he opened a two-day campaign-style bus tour of college campuses, would create a rating system beginning in 2015 to evaluate colleges on tuition, the percentage of low-income students, graduation rates and debt of graduates.
Eventually, as an incentive for schools to make improvements in these areas, federal financial aid would be awarded based on those ratings. Obama said he could create the ratings system through executive action, but the plan to reallocate federal aid based on the ratings would require congressional approval.
“Higher education should not be a luxury. It is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford,” Obama told students at the University at Buffalo.
Obama said that in a global knowledge-based economy, a quality college education is more important than ever. He pitched the ratings system as a consumer guide for students and their parents, evaluating which schools offer “the bigger bang for the buck.”
A two-pronged approach
The average tuition at public four-year colleges has increased by more than 250 percent over the past three decades, while incomes for typical families grew by only 16 percent, according to College Board and census data that Obama cited. This trend, he said, is a “crisis” and represents “a barrier and a burden to too many American families.”
Obama seeks to make college more affordable in two ways. First, the ratings would reward colleges that offer “value.” A school that holds down average tuition and student-loan debt could rise in the ratings, which means that the system would act as an incentive for colleges to keep those costs as low as possible. In addition, higher-rated schools would qualify for larger federal grants, making them more affordable.
Obama’s proposal comes as the White House prepares for battle with House Republicans on a series of fiscal issues in the fall, and it is not clear whether he can succeed in persuading lawmakers to back this or any other initiative. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, applauded Obama’s goal of promoting innovation and competition. But he added: “I remain concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage — and even lead to federal price controls.”
Obama said his plan includes some accountability measures to ensure that students who receive federal financial aid complete their courses each semester before receiving new grants.
In Minnesota, the proposals met with a fair amount of skepticism. David Anderson, the president of St. Olaf College in Northfield, agreed that costs are a growing concern, but he shrugged off the idea of “shaming” colleges to hold down prices.
“We’re not ashamed of the cost of a St. Olaf education in relation to the value that’s received,” he said. “So the president’s not going to shame our institution with a public-relations campaign.” This year, St. Olaf is charging $49,996 for tuition, room and board.
Anderson said it’s natural to ask if colleges are providing value for the money, but he’s “very dubious” about the proposed rating system. “The question then becomes, how are we going to measure value?” he asked. “That’s obviously the hard part.”.
Steven Poskanzer, the president of Carleton College, said the “obvious potential flaw with this proposal is that it could fail to account for the huge differences among colleges.” For example, he said, “a college that trains superb teachers and social workers isn’t going to have starting salaries for graduates that match those of a business school.”
Eva von Dassow, an associate professor of classical and near eastern studies at the University of Minnesota, said she’s concerned the proposal would undercut the purpose of higher education. “The framing of the problem is fundamentally that money is the only value to education,” she said. “This reduces education to vocational training.”
Staff writer Maura Lerner contributed to this report.
© 2013 Star Tribune