Obama's Plan To Make College More Affordable

The president outlined sweeping reforms on Thursday.

August 22, 2013, 12:40 PM
PHOTO: US President Barack Obama speaks on education at University of Buffalo, the State University of New York, on August 22, 2013 in Buffalo, New York.
US President Barack Obama speaks on education at University of Buffalo, the State University of New York, on August 22, 2013 in Buffalo, New York. Obama is on a two-day bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania to discuss his plan to make college more affordable.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 22, 2013— -- President Barack Obama on Thursday called for sweeping higher-education reforms that aim to make college more affordable.

The president proposed changing the way colleges get federal aid, encouraging institutions to use technology and online learning to make courses more accessible, and capping loan repayment plans depending on how much graduates earn.

Rising tuition costs have far outpaced income gains in the past several decades and forced more students than ever to take out loans to pay for college. That’s delayed things like saving for retirement, and even buying a home and getting married for many young people.

“Higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future,” he told students at the University at Buffalo, during the start of a two-day bus tour on college affordability.

But students today are saddled with a choice previous generations didn’t have to make, he continued, the choice between saying no to college or saying yes and accepting the burden of debt.

“We can’t go about business as usual,” he said, before outlining a three-part proposal that, if enacted, would represent the most significant set of education reforms in the last half century.

By fall 2015, the president wants college ratings based on the value they provide students. Federal aid would be tied to where colleges stand by 2018. Now, aid typically depends on how many students attend a university, not how they do or whether they graduate.

The president’s proposal would give aid to schools that do a good job of graduating employable students on time and also to those who keep costs affordable and serve low-income students. Students who attend highly-ranked schools would also be eligible for larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans.

Nearly three-quarters of Hispanic undergraduates rely on some type of aid to help pay for college and the ratings system and opportunity for more Pell Grant funding could help encourage Latino and other minority students to strive to attend highly ranked schools.

The president’s plan includes a Race to the Top initiative that would encourage states to maintain funding for higher education, which has been cut in recent years as state governments have struggled to rebound from the economic downturn.

The plan also encourages colleges and universities to use new technology to make classes available to more students. Streaming classes online, for instance, could allow many more students to access higher education on a flexible, less costly schedule. It was no coincidence that the president spoke at Buffalo. New York’s university system has launched an initiative to offer system-wide online programs to all students.

Obama urged colleges to forge partnerships with high schools and award students credit for coursework done there and to people with work experience, which could benefit veterans who return from service with valuable knowledge in things like mechanics and engineering without a degree to prove it.

Not all of the burden is on colleges, however. Obama’s plan would place more responsibility on students who take out federal loans by requiring them to show academic progress, in part by completing a certain percentage of classes, before they can access more aid.

Obama said he wants to make loan repayment easier, though, by letting borrowers cap federal loan payments at 10 percent of their monthly income.

As the president and other White House officials have repeatedly warned, the chances of some of these reforms becoming reality are unclear.

For example, For-profit colleges are likely to push back on the ratings system. They have been widely criticized for taking billions of dollars in loans and then failing to graduate students. While the White House has pointed out that the ratings won’t require congressional approval, tying aid to that system will. So will overhauling the way students repay their loans.

Given the recent bickering over how to handle loan interest rates, that could be tricky.

Obama is using his two-day tour to put pressure on lawmakers to act by taking his plan to the public. He will also make stops in Syracuse and Binghamton in New York before wrapping up the tour on Friday in Scranton, Pa.

“If we don’t do something about keeping [higher education] within reach,” the president said in Buffalo, “it will create problems with economic mobility for generations to come and that’s not acceptable.”

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