President Obama rolls out higher education plan

President Obama debuted his new proposal for curbing costs of higher education Aug. 22, expanding on the presentation of his plan’s details in a town hall the following day at Lackawana College in Scranton, Pa.

President Obama outlined three possible incentives for colleges to lower their tuition costs as part of his proposed package:

    – Tie financial aid to college performance, starting with publishing new college ratings before the 2015 school year.

    – Challenge states to fund public colleges based on performance.

    – Hold students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree.

Part of the metric in measuring performance would be looking at graduation rates at colleges, possibly tying federal financial aid funding to schools that have higher outcomes in this area.

The American Federation of Teachers Higher Education tweeted its reaction to the town hall, welcoming the president’s signal that he would be including educators in the ongoing conversation over the plan’s future.

Like President Obama, the union points to withdrawal of state funding from higher education budgets as a contributing factor in soaring tuition costs. “State and local governments have decreased their levels of investment in public colleges and universities to the point where state funding accounts for only 10 percent or less of many public universities’ budgets,” the union report notes.

The AFT’s position paper parallels the president’s points that limited access to ever costlier higher education leads to stagnation in graduation rates, which are at a low-point in the United States, especially for working-class African-American and Latino youth.

AFT’s report also notes that several states have already adopted a model that ties funding to completion rates, but sounds a note of caution on this approach. “Performance-funding mechanisms that hinge a percentage of state higher education appropriations on how well institutions increase their graduation rates have increased in popularity…in spite of the fact that research examining state performance-funding plans suggests they have little or no effect 
on improving college completion rates.”

Foundations such as Lumina and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, notes the report, have also been involved in funding performance-based outcomes in higher education.

This point may lead to a conversation on the importance of inputs, as opposed to outputs, to success in college between the union and the White House. Data accumulated on factors that lead to greater student retention state that “students have been clear about the supports they need to succeed: They need better financial aid assistance through grants and scholarships, as well as better financial counseling, more informative and accessible counseling and advising, more accessible faculty (a largely contingent faculty workforce undermines this), smaller class sizes and more course offerings, a culture of encouraging students to seek guidance and help, and better orientation programs.”

However, reforms of this nature in the future may only be possible with a Congress that is more aligned with President Obama’s goal of expanding accessible education for all. The president stated that he is aware of legislative roadblocks to his plans and is concentrating on what he can accomplish on his own authority.

Finding common ground on the issue of ballooning student debt burden and reducing the outstanding $1 trillion dollars in student loan defaults is more likely. One of the key points of President Obama’s proposals, that loan payments should not be more than 10 percent of a person’s income post-graduation, was part of the union’s recommendations for relieving student debt.

Shifting focus to rewarding colleges that offer more need-based financial aid will also better serve the goal of improving student achievements, the report says. “The shift from need-based to merit-based financial assistance has made it harder
 for low-income, first-generation, and other deserving but disadvantaged students, as well as middle-class students, to afford college without accruing thousands of dollars in debt.”

Using the “gainful employment” yardstick, ensuring that students are leaving colleges with good jobs that pay well, is also a reform welcomed by education advocates. This data will be available to students who are choosing colleges, giving them helpful information on how well that college prepares degree-holders for the workforce.

Federal oversight of out-of-control college costs, will, it is hoped, establish an important precedent, similar to the precedent established by the reform of the health care industry established by ACA.

Photo: President Obama speaks to students. AP


Michelle Kern
Michelle Kern

Michelle Kern is Adjunct Professor, Creative Arts and Social Science Department at College of San Mateo, California. She is Chapter Chair at AFT local 1493, Organizer at AFT local 1493 and contributing writer to