BUFFALO, N.Y. – President Barack Obama declared a crisis in the soaring cost of higher education Thursday and unveiled a broad new plan that aims to make college education more affordable by tying federal financial aid to new college ratings.
The plan, which Obama rolled out as he opened a two-day campaign-style bus tour of college campuses, would create a rating system beginning in 2015 to evaluate colleges on tuition, the percentage of low-income students, graduation rates and debt of graduates.
Eventually, as an incentive for schools to make improvements in these areas, federal financial aid would be awarded based on those ratings. Obama said he could create the ratings system through executive action, but the plan to reallocate federal aid based on the ratings would require congressional approval.
Higher education should not be a luxury. It is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford, Obama said, addressing a basketball arena packed with students at the University at Buffalo.
Obama said that in a global knowledge-based economy, a quality college education is more important than ever. He pitched the ratings system as a consumer guide for prospective students and their parents, evaluating which schools offer the bigger bang for the buck.
Colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high-quality education are the ones that are going to see their taxpayer money going up, Obama said.
The average tuition at public four-year colleges has increased by more than 250 percent over the past three decades, while incomes for typical families grew by only 16 percent, according to College Board and census data that Obama cited. This trend, he said, is a crisis and represents a barrier and a burden to too many American families.
Obama seeks to make college more affordable in two ways. First, the ratings would reward colleges that offer value. A school that holds down average tuition and student-loan debt could rise in the ratings, which means that the system would act as an incentive for colleges to keep those costs as low as possible.
In addition, higher-rated schools would qualify for larger federal grants, making them more affordable for students.
Obamas proposal comes as the White House prepares for battle with House Republicans on a series of fiscal issues in the fall, and it is unclear whether he can succeed in persuading lawmakers to back this or any other initiative.
Rep. John Kline , R-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, applauded Obamas goal of promoting innovation and competition. But he added: 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.
Still, Obama said he is on a personal mission to combat soaring tuition at the nations colleges and to make higher education more affordable for middle-class families.
Just tinkering around the edges wont be enough, Obama said. Weve got to shake up the current system.
In his Buffalo address, Obama noted that he and his wife, Michelle, took out student loans to attend college and law school and did not pay them off until they were in their 40s. But he lamented that on average students today have far more loans than he had, saying the average college student graduates with more than $26,000 in debt.
Obama said his plan includes some accountability measures to ensure that students who receive federal financial aid complete their courses each semester before receiving grants for the next semester.
We need to make sure that if youre getting financial aid, youre doing your part to make progress toward a college degree, Obama said. If you take on debt and you dont get that degree, you are not going to be able to pay off that debt.
Exactly how to compare colleges and judge outcomes is a matter of fierce debate within academia.
Many colleges cant even agree on which institutions are their peers.
There are major questions over how to calculate graduation rates and measure earnings potential of college graduates.
Ive spent my life in American higher education, said Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents. It is hard for me to imagine there is a system that we would all nod our heads to and say yes.
Broad predicted opposition from many institutions to federal ratings. But she said colleges and universities acknowledge that change is needed to respond to public concerns over rising college costs.
We are in the midst of a dramatic transformation. It is still in the process of emerging, Broad said. We get the message that we have to do everything we can to simultaneously improve the quality of teaching and learning and reduce the costs.