Obama's Cost-Saving Plan: 7 Experts Weigh In

August 22, 2013

As President Obama promotes his new plan for bringing down college costs, The Chronicle asked several experts for their reactions to his proposals. The following is a roundup of their views.

Robert Applebaum, cofounder and executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit group dedicated to reforming how higher education is paid for in the United States:

President Obama's speech this morning at the University at Buffalo signals good news on the horizon for nearly 40 million student-loan borrowers who collectively owe approximately $1.2-trillion in educational debt.

For far too long, the issues of college affordability and the ever-growing student-debt crisis have largely been ignored. However, the president made clear this morning that tackling these critical issues will be a priority for the remainder of his time in office.

The administration's renewed focus on both making college more affordable, as well as on making it easier for borrowers to repay their loans, is welcome news and we look forward to the coming debate.

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University:

Innovation is the single-most important pathway for making higher education more affordable while improving quality. And President Obama today advanced a comprehensive set of proposals that will help create an environment in which colleges and universities will be empowered and rewarded for implementing new ideas and new practices for teaching and learning. In addition, President Obama has also appropriately identified technology as one of the key drivers of meaningful change to higher education in the United States.

Barry Glassner, president of Lewis & Clark College, and Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University:

We applaud the president's desire to direct taxpayer dollars "toward high-performing colleges that provide the best value." And we trust that as he and his advisers give additional thought to how to measure performance and value, they will emphasize many of the attributes that led them to choose the colleges they attended themselves and want their children to attend. We suspect that list includes the quality and dedication of the faculty, the availability and caliber of majors and minors, academic and other support services the institution provides, study-abroad opportunities, and a general focus on the intellectual and social development of students both inside and outside the classroom.

Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of San Jacinto College:

I agree with President Obama that education is the ultimate equalizer and that it continues to be the ticket to the middle class. Education is the pathway to great jobs. Here in the heart of the petrochemical industry and one of the largest ports in the world, I have the privilege to see this reality every day.

We are in agreement that accountability is key and we embrace affordability. We look for ways to assist our students in achieving their educational goals and moving them along a pathway to a great career or to the university of their choice. We get a little nervous about some of the metrics we hear on graduation rates, knowing that close to 70 percent of community-college students attend part time. Due to this fact, some of the assumed metrics around three-year graduation rates are misleading. Data also show that many students transfer to a university before completing the associate degree, and that impacts the three-year graduation rate as well. The American Association of Community Colleges is working with community-college leaders across the nation on the Voluntary Framework of Accountability to look at student-success metrics for community colleges. It is my hope that the White House staff will work with our leaders at AACC on the best metrics for community colleges.

Catharine B. Hill, president of Vassar College:

Among the most important justifications for federal and state support of higher education are the accomplishment of equal opportunity and greater social mobility. I've been critical of existing higher-education measurements for not valuing socioeconomic diversity and applaud the elements of President Obama's proposal that address equal access and affordability. Subsidies based on meeting these criteria will create incentives to help ensure that the higher-education system contributes to, rather than worsens, future income equality. I hope there will be many opportunities for public comment on the proposals, to prevent or minimize unintended consequences of this well-intentioned initiative.

Judith Scott-Clayton, assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University:

Obama's newly released college-affordability plan is ambitious, and that alone is an encouraging sign that the administration is willing to think creatively and spend some political capital to make progress on this issue. They could have limited their proposals to executive actions that wouldn't require Congress, or focused on the perennial question of where to set the Pell Grant maximum. Instead they put forward a wide-ranging package of meaningful reforms, many of which draw upon proposals that have been circulating in the academic and policy community.

However, the headline proposal of linking student aid to federal ratings of institutional performance is not the one upon which the administration should focus its limited capital. It might sound good, but in practice it is very difficult to get such ratings right, and if the amount of aid at stake is substantial, the consequences of getting it wrong could be disastrous. Even in the most optimistic scenario, such a program might help improve some aspects of institutional performance but is unlikely to alter the underlying forces driving rising tuition. The fact that the administration put a target date on it of 2018, and did not specify what proportion of aid would be at stake, suggests that the officials are aware of the potential obstacles.

What the administration proposes to do immediately is to expand the College Scorecard to include additional information and then combine that information into a rating that compares colleges against "peer institutions." This additional information could be helpful—prospective students need to know that all schools are not alike, people do have choices, and that those choices matter for their finances and employment prospects. But one problem is that it is not clear whether or how prospective students use the current federal College Scorecard.

Some other good ideas are buried in the proposal, such as reforming Pell Grants in various ways, and making it easier for students to access the pay-as-you-earn student-loan-repayment plan. One of the plan's glaring omissions is that it does not deal with the complexity of the financial-aid application process. We have solid research evidence that simplifying the aid application process would increase access for students.

The open question is whether the unworkable headline proposal will turn out to be the attention-getting salvo that opens a broader conversation about improving college affordability and outcomes, or whether it will serve as a distraction from other potential reforms with a greater chance of success.