Education

Conservatives shrug at Obama’s higher ed plans, colleges howl in rage

Robby Soave Reporter

The president’s plan to fix the higher education sector was met with skepticism and hostility from many of his critics — and even a few of his typical supporters.

In a speaking tour last week, President Barack Obama proposed several policies intended to bring down tuition costs and make universities more responsible for their students’ outcomes. He also touted a loan forgiveness program that would let students off the hook for their debts if they paid back a portion of their earnings.

But it was his idea to compile a federal student aid eligibility ranking for colleges that drew the most scorn from professors and administrators, who are usually among the president’s most passionate defenders.

“What is so disappointing about this plan is that it was devised without any significant input from faculty, and certainly not with input from the majority,” said Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, an interest group for adjunct instructors, in a statement to Inside Higher Ed.

The ranking system would evaluate universities based on how well they were doing at preparing their students for employment. Those with higher scores would be able to accept more federal aid, since their students are a safer investment for the federal government.

But may administrators voiced concerns that colleges would find ways to inflate their rankings in any federal database.

“Taken as a whole, the proposals seem at cross purposes at best and potentially damaging to the pursuit of quality at worst,” said Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in a statement.

Conservative critics also expressed fears that the rankings system would have trouble making a true, objective measure of college outputs.

“The president has come up with a mixed bag of proposals, some of which are contradictory,” wrote Jane Shaw, president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education, in a statement to The Daily Caller. “His proposed new metrics for judging colleges may work against each other. It will be difficult to have high numbers of Pell grantees and high graduation rates.”

Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, gave Obama credit for acknowledging that unrestricted financial aid has driven up the overall cost of attending college, since loan-assisted students can always pay the sticker price up front.

“We haven’t actually paid all that much attention to the incentives for colleges,” Kelly told TheDC. “It’s a big accountability problem.”

Still, any ratings system is bound to run into problems, he said.

“The idea of constructing a ratings system that is fair and gets at what we are trying to to get at, which is how good a job you are doing of serving students and at what price, that’s going to be really hard to do,” he said.

The best thing about the plan is that it draws attention to the high cost of college, which has skyrocketed for decades, wrote Shaw.

“President Obama is trying to ‘fix’ college problems through regulation and legislation, without changing the underlying incentives that push costs up at most schools,” she wrote. “Lower costs rather than manipulating federal aid would be a better way to increase access for those students who really want to go to school.”

Kelly called the ideas, “bold and interesting and unlikely to get very far in the next term.”

Follow Robby on Twitter