Obama: Link aid to college value

“A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future,” President Obama told University of Buffalo students. But, “the soaring cost of higher education” has “become a barrier and a burden for too many American families.”  The president announced a plan to rate colleges “on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”

The rankings would start as a consumer tool showing tuition, student loan debt, graduation rates and graduates’ earnings. Eventually, “Congress will be asked to change the federal financial-aid program so as to reward higher-performing colleges by giving students at those institutions larger Pell grants and lower-cost loans,” writes Jon Marcus on the Hechinger Report. However, it’s not a sure thing. “A previous similar proposal, to punish universities with the highest annual increases in tuition, hit snags and has been stalled.”

The president also proposes to raise the maximum Pell grant, the principal federal financial-aid program, by more than $900, to $6,450 per year, and expand tax credits for families paying tuition, ideas that face challenging legislative prospects in an era of austerity.

Students who take out loans to pay for their higher educations would be allowed to cap their repayments at an amount equal to no more than 10 percent of their income, an option now available to only a small number of borrowers.

Obama also will ask for $1 billion for grants to public universities and colleges that meet performance goals and for additional money to reward colleges and universities that graduate the largest numbers of low-income students.

The president pledged to cut off federal aid to students who don’t make “satisfactory academic progress.” (It’s already the law, but it’s loosely enforced.) Pell Grant money — now disbursed in a lump sum at the start of the semester — would be doled out in small increments to discourage students from enrolling, collecting the money and dropping out. The plan also includes Pell eligibility for low-income high school students taking college courses.

Encouraging colleges to innovate will cut costs, the president said.

The plan mentions so-called competency-based degrees, in which college credits are based not on the hours students spend in classrooms, but on how much they can show they know.

Another approach mentioned in the plan is online education through what have become known as “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, which are mostly free. Mr. Obama also urged consideration of three-year degree programs and dual enrollment programs in which high school students can begin to earn college credits.

So far, though, the administration “has failed to persuade Congress to pay for Race to the Top competition for higher education, under which grants would go to those colleges with promising approaches,” notes the New York Times.

The president promised regulatory waivers to innovative colleges.

The American Association of Community College Trustees praised the president’s “plan to align federal aid disbursement based on academic progress and persistence,” but warned “there may be complexities in implementing this system based on the currently available information.” In other words, community colleges have very low graduation rates if transfers and certificate earners aren’t counted.

Nearly all colleges that admit large percentages of low-income, minority and first-generation students have very low graduation rates. In addition to community colleges, linking student aid to success rates could hurt the historically black colleges. Expect lots of pushback.

Obama’s plan gets an F from Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist. She quotes Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, who warns, ‘This is extraordinarily complicated stuff, and it’s not clear we have the complete data or accurate data.”