President Obama will unveil his plans to make college more affordable during a bus tour of Pennsylvania and New York on Thursday and Friday.
The White House has remained tight-lipped about how exactly the president proposes to rein in soaring college costs and make higher education available to a broader spectrum of students. Obama wrote in an email posted on the White House website Tuesday afternoon that his “plan includes real reforms that would bring lasting change. They won't all be popular with everyone --including some who've made higher education their business -- but it's past time that more of our colleges work better for the students they exist to serve.”
Opening higher education opportunities to more students will be a challenging process. It’s tied to broader social changes like growing income inequality and a struggling middle class. It’s also going to require a hard look at the federal financial aid system, as well as the (lack of) accountability and transparency of private lenders.
Here are some ways the country could reform higher education:
1. Distribute federal aid more smartly. The government doles out billions of dollars in financial aid to schools around the country, but does a poor job tracking how it’s spent. Take for-profit colleges, for instance. The companies that operate them got more than $30 billion in aid during the 2009-10 school year, but the majority of students who enrolled for the 2008-2009 school year left without a degree.
Critics say a whole slew of the schools, many owned by private equity firms and publicly traded companies, snare students with sneaky marketing tactics and do little to provide them an education.
If the government tied aid to graduation or job placement rates, both traditional and nonprofit schools would have to do a better job of actually instructing students to stay afloat. Aid could also be conditional on tuition prices remaining reasonable, meaning if a college’s tuition increases by more than a certain percentage, their funding gets cut. Obama actually mentioned such a plan in his 2012 State of the Union address, so don’t be surprised to hear him mention it again.
2. Distribute college scholarships and grants more smartly, too. While about 39 percent of students from families earning less than $20,000 per year got college grants, so did 38 percent of students from families making more than $100,000. Average grants were higher for wealthier students, too. Some of that has to do with the fact that low-income students are more likely to attend cheaper colleges, so smaller grants may make more of a difference.
But that’s part of the problem. Poor students who are fully capable of succeeding at a rigorous university may feel they have to attend a local two-year school because they can’t afford anything else. If colleges spent less time wooing students whose families can already afford college tuition and more of their limited dollars on poor students, the playing field might even out.
3. Acknowledge up front that college isn’t for everyone. This is not something the administration is likely to endorse, considering the president said during his 2012 State of the Union address that “in today’s global economy, a college education is no longer just a privilege for some, but rather a prerequisite for all.”