TOPICS > Education

President Obama Offers Plan to Make Colleges More Affordable and Accountable

August 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama's new plan to make higher education more affordable includes a rating system that links federal dollars to schools' cost and performance. Ray Suarez speaks with Anya Kamenetz of Fast Company, Sandy Baum of the George Washington University and Gail Mellow of LaGuardia Community College.
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RAY SUAREZ: President Obama took aim at the soaring cost of college today with an ambitious plan to rate schools and link tuition prices to federal financial aid.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future.

RAY SUAREZ: The president unveiled his proposal before a crowd of more than 7,000 at the University of Buffalo in Upstate New York.

BARACK OBAMA: At a time when a higher education has never been more important or more expensive, too many students are facing a choice that they should never have to make. Either they say no to college and pay the price for not getting a degree — and that’s a price that lasts a lifetime — or you do what it takes to go to college, but then you run the risk that you won’t be able to pay it off because you got so much debt.

RAY SUAREZ: According to the administration, tuition at four-year public universities has risen 250 percent over the past three decades, even as the average family income has risen just 16 percent. That’s led to students taking on more debt. Today, the average student loan borrower graduates with more than $26,000 to pay off.

The president said that must change.

BARACK OBAMA: Higher education is still the best ticket to upward mobility in America. And if we don’t do something about keeping it within reach, it will create problems for economic mobility for generations to come. And that’s not acceptable.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: His answer? A new rating system for colleges and universities, both public and private, that would link federal dollars to schools’ affordability and performance.

Among other metrics, it would take into account a school’s average tuition cost and average student loan debt, graduation rates, the number of its graduates who received Pell Grants for low- to moderate-income students, and the average earnings of its students once they graduate.

The idea builds on the College Scorecard, a tool designed to help students sort colleges based on value that’s already available on the Web site WhiteHouse.gov. The president said today he wants to implement this new system before the start of the 2015 school year, and to work with Congress to tie federal student aid to the ratings.

BARACK OBAMA: Colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high-quality education are the ones that are going to see their taxpayer funding go up. It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: But Republican Representative John Kline, who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, expressed doubt about the proposal, saying in a statement: “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.”

In another move, the president proposed expanding to everyone a program that allows graduates to pay no more than 10 percent of their monthly income to service student loan debt. On the campus of George Washington University in downtown Washington, students preparing to start their fall terms said these tools could help.

KY RHODA, The George Washington University: Things like affordability and retention rate and things like that are all very important to me.

ASHLEY WAIN, The George Washington University: If a school that you’re at isn’t too affordable and it’s not really setting you up to be successful after graduation, prospective students should be able to know that before going into the college or going into the school.

RAY SUAREZ: Tomorrow, the president continues his two-day bus tour to promote the plan, with a stop at the State University of New York at Binghamton for a town hall with students and faculty.

For more, we turn to Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, Anya Kamenetz, author of a new book on higher ed called “DIY U” and a contributing writer for “Fast Company,” and Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York.

I would like to start with all of you by getting your quick impressions of the policy package.

President Mellow, what do you make of the president’s proposals?

GAIL MELLOW, LaGuardia Community College: Well, it’s always great, Ray, when the president of the United States talks about higher education. College presidents really like that.

I’m excited by it and concerned at the same time. When I think about my students, the student at community colleges, which make up about half of all undergraduates in the United States, I wonder if the measure that we’re going to put together really allow us to make the differentiation that the president wants us to make.

RAY SUAREZ: Anya Kamenetz, same question. Did you see a lot to like in the president’s proposals, obviously more to be found out about what’s in them, but in a broad overview?

ANYA KAMENETZ, author: I’m really excited about the principle of what he’s talking about, because it’s very clear, and yet it’s revolutionary.

For so long, colleges have been allowed to gain prestige by how many people they keep out, and they’re not asked to provide good information about who they’re graduating and what happens after that.

So the simple idea of an accountability measure that is based on how affordable the college is, what good a job it does at attracting people from a diverse social and economic background, and then what happens to them after that, I think that is a very, very important set of criteria that we should be judging our higher education system on.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Baum?

SANDY BAUM, The George Washington University: I don’t think this is a simple proposal at all. I think it’s very complicated.

I think that colleges that are really causing problems for students are not those that are seeking prestige. We do need more information. Students absolutely need more information, but it’s going to be really challenging to try to accomplish what the president is proposing.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the earliest reactions had to do with a distaste for federal control in this institution, but since we are talking about federally subsidized and supported institutions in many cases, shouldn’t the taxpayer have a scorecard, know what they’re getting for their money?

SANDY BAUM: The taxpayer should know, and we should certainly eliminate schools that are not doing well by students from the federal student aid program, but we shouldn’t tell a student that if your institution raises their price, sorry, we’re going to cut your aid.

RAY SUAREZ: President Mellow, given what the president is talking about measuring, is a school like yours that deals with a large low-income population, a lot of immigrants, in one of the most diverse communities in the United States, are you going to be burdened by that, even though you’re doing some of the heaviest lifting in American higher ed?

GAIL MELLOW: It really depends on the nuance, on the specificity of those measures.

What’s happened in all of higher education in the United States for a long time is, there’s a pyramid, and the people at the top of the pyramid are the most prepared, but they also get the most federal money.

So I think rethinking that would be really important to imagine what might happen. But I also think, Ray, what you’re talking about is, where do students start? And if we can really measure an equal starting point, then I think the changes that a place like LaGuardia Community College make are evident of great investment for federal dollars. That’s a tough thing to do.

RAY SUAREZ: So, completion rates, just as a blunt statistic, you might not look very good on those, but if we looked at where some of your students were starting out, with remediation and so on, you might score very highly?

GAIL MELLOW: Absolutely.

I always say that I’m a better return on investment than Harvard because of the amount of change that we make. But it’s really important to think that there are a lot of other pieces of the president’s proposal. I think a lot of the innovation, particularly on student services, the look at student debt, those kinds of things I think could be very powerful and important for students.

But it really is going to depend on what happens. And we also have to remember that one of the challenges for higher education has been the rollback in state support for what happens in higher education, and we don’t see the president’s proposal addressing that.

RAY SUAREZ: Anya, if you’re a high schooler trying to figure all of this out, and maybe nobody in your family has even been to college to help you out with it, is it easy to find the kind of statistics the president is talking about using in this scorecard, easy to find on your own the measurements he wants you to be able to comparison shop?

ANYA KAMENETZ: It’s very, very difficult and very complicated.

There’s a lot of conflicting sources of information. And the sad fact is that a student like that is very apt to be targeted by the type of college, particularly the for-profit online college, that doesn’t do a very good job of graduating their students and does graduate students with a lot of debt.

So, the idea that there’s a public conversation about the outcomes of education and what happens to students in that process is, I think, really important on that level of the individual high school student trying to make a decision.

And I would like to add as well that the center of the president’s proposal is performance funding, and it is all based on data. And colleges historically have really opposed to that kind of data collection. They don’t want to be subject to the same kinds of accountability measures that have become commonplace in our K-12 schools. And they don’t want to see individual students tracked.

So, there’s a really big political fight ahead, I think, in this proposal where we talk about what’s the role of higher education, how independent and how diverse is higher education going to be, vs. the kind of measurements that many want to impose.

RAY SUAREZ: Sandy Baum, a resistance to the kind of transparency that Anya Kamenetz is talking about?

SANDY BAUM: I think there is some resistance to transparency and we do need better data on individual students, but we need to be careful.

Higher education is very diverse. And there is a lot of uncertainty. Students are going to have trouble navigating the information. And one of the things that is very important is that we have to protect students for whom this doesn’t work out well. The student loan proposals are terrifically important. Maybe the most important thing is that the administration proposes to notify students when they’re getting into trouble that they’re getting into trouble and that there may be better options to protect them from defaulting on their student loans. That’s very important.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what happens now?

SANDY BAUM: Well, right now, there are lots of protections in place for students, but they don’t know about them, they don’t know how to access them. And so they get into trouble, when they really don’t have to.

RAY SUAREZ: President Mellow, one of the proposals that came up today was an idea of widening the access to the pay-as-you-earn program that would cap the percentage of a graduate’s income that goes to paying down debt. Does that have some appeal for you?

GAIL MELLOW: It has a lot of appeal.

What we have to understand is that American higher education, especially American community colleges, are the work force development engine for the United States. More — almost — I’m sorry — almost half of all of our undergraduate students are over the age of 24. Almost without fail, that means that they’re working.

So the ability to marry education with your work is very important. And being able to cap that debt is important. But I would say one of the issues that I have with President Obama’s proposal is perhaps not enough attention to that older student, because acceleration and those kinds of issues which the president has talked about presume that you can go to college full-time.

And that’s great for a guy like Steve, who is one of my students who just got back from four tours in Iraq, has put everything on hold to start college. But it’s not so good for another student of mine, Desiree, who has a kid, who helps her mother out, who works full-time. Acceleration doesn’t mean much for her.

And, unfortunately, I don’t see enough in this new set of proposals that would really help the adult student who is also working.

RAY SUAREZ: Fair criticism, Anya, that when you listened to the president talk today, it seemed like he was talking about the kid who can go full-time for four years, finish all at once, and then start the rest of their lives?

ANYA KAMENETZ: Well, I think we all have a tendency, I think, historically to look at college that way.

But, actually, some of the language that Obama used, especially talking about rebooting regulation and moving toward more competency-based degrees and programs I think can be very helpful for the kind of working adult that President Mellow talked about.

I mean, online degree programs, competency-based programs, blended learning programs, and recovering some of those 37 million adults who have some college and no degree, getting them back into the program, I think innovations of different kinds can help address all of those issues. And, you know, it doesn’t make sense just to focus on the acceleration.

RAY SUAREZ: Anya Kamenetz, Madam President, Professor Baum, thank you, all.

ANYA KAMENETZ: Thank you.

GAIL MELLOW: Thank you, Ray.

SANDY BAUM: Thank you.