October 30, 2013

EDITORIAL: Evaluating Obama’s College Affordability Plan

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In a Forbes op-ed published this week, “Rating President Obama’s College Ratings,” President David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler, vice president for University relations, join the critics who express skepticism of Obama’s college affordability plan. Given the widening gap between tuition costs and family incomes and affordability continuing to slip further out of reach, bold and creative higher education reforms are much needed. Obama’s higher education plan is a step in that direction, with compelling underlying concepts and some clear, beneficial changes. But we agree with some national education experts that the proposed college ratings system is flawed.

The ratings system would assign performance-based values to U.S. colleges and tether federal financial aid eligibility to those rankings. Connecting aid with outcomes is an ambitious idea. But we worry that relying on rigid, numbers-driven metrics will lead some universities to take a numbers-driven approach to reform — instead of pursuing true qualitative change. Obama’s suggested criteria may push universities not toward enforcement of higher standards, but rather toward reduced rigor and grade inflation. Experts recall the backlash seen with No Child Left Behind, where some K-12 schools lowered academic expectations in order to drive up graduation rates. Alternatively, if colleges that fear a low rating become more selective in admissions, some students in need of financial aid may be left out in the cold.

Still, there are aspects of Obama’s proposal we support as written, such as the requirement that, in order to receive continued assistance, undergraduates must prove that they are making progress toward acquiring a degree. Holding students accountable for earning their financial aid through demonstrated academic advancement can help ensure that the government is investing wisely in young people who will become productive members of the workforce. It would also incentivize students to graduate in a timely fashion, reducing the average aid doled out to individuals.

Expanding and improving awareness of the Pay As You Earn federal aid program — capping loan repayments required of student borrowers at 10 percent of their incomes — is another way the plan could make financing a college education more feasible for more people. While college tuition has risen by more than 250 percent, average family incomes have increased by only about 16 percent, according to recent College Board and Census data cited by the White House.

With the persistence of such discrepancies preventing so many students and families from being able to comfortably finance higher education, substantial and immediate systemic changes are necessary. Obama’s plan includes some quick and positive measures that should be implemented in the U.S. as soon as possible. But in considering college ratings, we urge caution; the system in its proposed form could potentially do more harm than good.

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