Last week the White House hit the road for a short bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania to take the issue of college affordability directly to campuses. At the tour’s first stop at SUNY Buffalo, In what might be the longest speech solely about higher education given by a sitting president (google search results inconclusive), President Obama laid out an ambitious agenda to make college more affordable.
The White House plan has three parts: pay for performance, promoting innovation and competition, and managing student debt. More information is available on the White House website.
Let’s start by discussing managing student debt, which is the piece of this plan we are most excited about. In the past year AFT Higher Ed has released a major report on student debt highlighting some of the same issues President Obama did on his recent bus tour. For example, the under-utilization of loan repayment programs like Pay As You Earn that cap payments at 10% of discretionary income means graduates are struggling unnecessarily with debt. The White House is planning a major campaign to make sure borrowers are aware of all their repayment options including programs especially important to AFT members like Public Service Loan Forgiveness. We applaud this effort to grow these programs.
As we point out in our student debt report, the major contributor to rising college costs is state disinvestment in higher education. President Obama cited this issue in his speech as well, but his plan to encourage innovation and competition amounts to Race to the Top Goes to College. More funds flowing to higher education is always good news, but we want a plan that encourages investment in all states. A plan with winners and losers will mean that some students are left with a more expensive college education through no fault of their own.
The most concerning part of the White House’s plan for college affordability is paying for performance. The White House plans to turn their college shopping sheets into a ranking system based on (according to the President’s speech in Buffalo) graduation rates, alumni earnings, and number of Pell eligible students. American higher education does not need another ranking system. At AFT we’ve worked to expose fraud in college rankings and empower students to make choices about college based on their needs, not to further a federal policy. The President stressed that the planned ranking/rating system (he used both words during the course of the bus tour) is still in the initial stages but he plans to have it in place by 2015.
More concerning still is the White House’s proposal to tie federal student aid money to institutional performance on these rankings. Students who chose “good” colleges as defined by the White House’s rating system, would receive increased Pell grants and larger subsidized loans. Students who chose “bad” colleges will receive smaller Pell grants and loan limits, and “bad” enough schools may lose their access to federal financial aid altogether. Unlike the creation of the ranking system itself, which will likely be completed by the US Department of Education, the White House will need the approval of Congress to accomplish this.
AFT stands for quality education. We certainly know there are some bad actors in the higher education marketplace. But in our view quality higher education is a diverse education, diversity of school and program options as well as diversity among students and faculty. In our view quality higher education is a rigorous education, with an engaging curriculum created by well-supported faculty experts. In our view quality education uses technology to enhance the experience of students, not to water it down. We fear that a ratings system will create perverse incentives that will devalue community colleges and non-degree-seeking learning, disincentivize colleges from admitting students with disadvantaged backgrounds, and devalue teaching and learning in favor of what it easy to measure.
Despite this concern, there were many points of light on the bus tour. During a town hall meeting at SUNY Binghamton President Obama demonstrated a fluency for higher education issues that was exciting to watch (there were some high-fives exchanged in our office). He called out for-profit colleges for bad behavior, spoke sincerely about his concern about inequality in America, thoughtfully answered a question from a faculty member about quality higher education, and probably gave some people at the American Bar Association a heart attack by suggesting law school be two years with a third year of clinical practice. We have no doubt President Obama is genuine in his desire to make college more affordable, but we believe his plans need to be refined with input from those on the frontlines of higher education today.
The college affordability bus tour was best when President Obama was engaging directly with students and faculty – those who are living higher education today. He promised to continue the conversation in the weeks and months ahead. That is great news for all the people who still had their hands raised when the President ran out of time at SUNY Binghamton. We plan to stay engaged with the Obama administration to make this plan responsive to the needs to students and faculty and ensure all questions are answered.