Obama Puts Federal Weight Behind Calls for College Affordability

February 12, 2013

In the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Obama asked Congress on Tuesday night to limit looming cuts in education and research, and called on lawmakers to link some federal student aid to college "affordability and value."

For the second year in a row, Mr. Obama used the speech to take colleges to task over rising tuition, warning that "taxpayers can't keep subsidizing higher and higher and higher costs for higher education."

"Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it's our job to make sure that they do," he said, urging Congress "to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid."

He also said his administration would release on Wednesday "a new 'College Scorecard' that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criterion—where you can get the most bang for your educational buck."

The scorecard, which the president proposed last year, is an online tool designed to make it easier for students to compare colleges, by providing at-a-glance information about universities, including their costs, completion rates, and average student-loan debt.

Mr. Obama delivered Tuesday's speech just weeks before deep cuts in discretionary spending are scheduled to take effect through a process known as "sequestration." Unless Congress acts to avert the cuts by March 1, spending on defense and nondefense programs will be cut by 5 percent across the board.

In recent weeks, some Congressional Republicans have suggested limiting the defense cuts in favor of steeper cuts in other programs. Mr. Obama rejected that idea, saying, "We won't grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling, or by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops, and firefighters."

He also called for continued spending on research. "Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation," he said. "Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race."

Immigration Reform

The president called for comprehensive immigration reform, but he did not specifically mention the Dream Act—legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for college students who are in the country illegally. Mr. Obama has backed a Senate plan that would create a faster route to citizenship for such students.

Over all, Mr. Obama's 2013 State of the Union speech contained fewer requests for higher education than 2012's, in which he asked Congress to expand job-training programs at community colleges, extend the tuition tax credit, and double Federal Work-Study jobs.

In that 2012 speech, the president praised institutions that have taken steps to rein in tuition, such as redesigning courses and making better use of technology. But he also had some tough words for the nation's colleges, putting them "on notice" that the government would not continue to "subsidize skyrocketing tuition."

The Republican response to this year's address came from Sen. Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite who has been active in immigration reform. Like the president, the Florida senator did not mention the Dream Act by name; however, he did call for "a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world's best and brightest"—an apparent reference to proposals to award green cards to foreign graduates of American universities.

Mr. Rubio also proposed updating the federal student-aid system to allow more money to flow to online programs and competency-based courses.

"I believe in federal financial aid. I couldn't have gone to college without it," he said. "But it's not just about spending more money on these programs; it's also about strengthening and modernizing them."

"We need student aid that does not discriminate against programs that nontraditional students rely on," he said.

Mr. Rubio, who owed more than $100,000 in student loans when he graduated from law school in the mid-1990s, also called for expanding disclosures around student debt, saying, "We must give students more information on the costs and benefits of the student loans they're taking out."