Independent Colleges Are Keen on Affordability Goals, but Wary of How to Achieve Them

January 31, 2012

Reacting to the higher-education proposals President Obama unveiled last week, the leader of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities said Monday that the organization was committed to "good faith" negotiations with the administration but would oppose any efforts by the federal government to encroach upon the independence of its institutions.

David L. Warren, Naicu's president, said that the proposals represented a "pivotal moment" for higher education and that "incredible consequences" hung in the balance.

Speaking to a group of college presidents gathered here for the association's annual meeting, Mr. Warren said he welcomed several of the proposals that President Obama outlined last week in the State of the Union address and in a speech at the University of Michigan.

Mr. Warren praised the notion of increasing support for the Federal Work-Study and Perkins Loan programs and keeping interest rates on federal student loans low. He added that higher-education leaders agreed with President Obama about the importance of college affordability.

Parts of Mr. Obama's proposals, however, have drawn the ire of college presidents.

Mr. Warren said he had received an overwhelming amount of feedback from college presidents and summarized their reactions as two-fold: The presidents perceive the regulatory proposals as "price control," and they believe the Obama administration is seeking to turn the Department of Education into the Ministry of Education.

In an interview, Mr. Warren was quick to point out that Naicu, as an organization, does not characterize the proposals in such a drastic way, even though it does have reservations about the federal government expanding its reach into higher education. Mr. Warren said that, aside from the proposed budget increases for student-aid programs, Naicu has "considerable concern about the unintended side effects" of changing how the government doles out student aid.

In his remarks at the meeting, Mr. Warren said that while he was willing to put away his "sword and shield" in negotiating with the Obama administration over the proposals, college presidents would, if necessary, mobilize "shoulder to shoulder in defense of the principles of our independence."

If the Department of Education chooses, without underlying statutory authority, to regulate "the issues that fundamentally determine our independence—our missions, our curriculum, the basis on which we admit and graduate students," we will oppose it, Mr. Warren said. "We will use every wise and effective political action to say, 'You cannot go there.'"

"Do not seek to replace the authority of campuses with the dicta of Washington, D.C., and the Department of Education," Mr. Warren warned the Obama administration and lawmakers, to the applause of college presidents at the meeting.

Even though any legislative proposals are unlikely to pass a divided Congress in an election year, Mr. Warren said the debate over these issues is the "prelude to the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act."