President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to tackle the skyrocketing cost of college by tying billions of dollars in federal student aid to how well colleges rank on affordability and other measures at a speech at the University at Buffalo on Thursday morning.
“Too many students are facing a choice they should never have to make: Either they say no to college . . . or you do what it takes to go to college but then you run the risk of not being able to pay it off because you've got so much debt,” Obama said.
The rise in college costs has far outpaced the growth in middle-class wages, especially at public four-year universities, where costs have gone up 250 percent in the past 30 years, according to the College Board. Obama’s plan, which would require authorization from a deeply divided Congress, would tie $150 billion each year in federal student aid to a ratings system the Department of Education will develop by 2015.
Colleges that are more affordable, serve more students from poorer backgrounds and have high graduation rates, among other factors, will be rated higher. Students who go to highly rated colleges would receive more funding in Pell Grants than those who choose to attend schools that are not doing as well in the federal government’s opinion. Also, in a change from the status quo, colleges would not receive the full amount of a Pell Grant for a student who drops out, in a bid to encourage them to boost their graduation rates.
“We want to rate them on who’s offering the best value, so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck,” Obama said.
White House officials told reporters they envision the plan going into effect by 2018. If Congress balks on the financial aid part of the plan, the White House plans to make the rating system public anyway.
“While Congress has to act to make that happen, we think simply providing the information can have an impact in the short term,” said White House domestic policy council director Cecilia Munoz. Munoz added that she didn’t believe the idea of keeping down college costs was a “partisan” issue and noted that Republican governors have supported ideas similar to the president’s plan. The legislation could still face a difficult path forward, however, as the Republican-controlled House has shown little or no inclination to go along with other parts of the soon-to-be lame-duck Democratic president's agenda. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday that he remains hopeful Congress will act, since they recently overcame bipartisan differences to lower student loan rates.
House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chair John Kline (R-MN) said in a statement that he's "concerned" a federal rating system would "curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage." The chief lobbying group for universities, the American Council on Education, said it will remain "vigilant" to prevent the government from tying financial aid to metrics.
The Education Department already has an interactive “college scorecard” that ranks colleges on graduation rate and affordability. Another component of Obama’s plan would replicate the “Race to the Top” K-12 program that awards states with federal money if they adopt education reforms — like charter schools — that the Obama administration approves. The $1 billion program would reward states that invest in public universities and community colleges and encourage them to boost graduation rates.
College financial aid was a partisan issue in the 2012 election, as both Mitt Romney and Obama tried to court young voters burdened by student debt.