Public and state higher-education leaders gave their tentative approval to much of President Obama's proposals on Thursday to make colleges more accountable and affordable. After all, many of the ideas he presented are already being pursued at the state level.
In a speech at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system, Mr. Obama recommended, among other things, Pell Grant "bonuses" for colleges that graduate many recipients of the grants and penalties for colleges with high dropout rates. The speech also repeated the president's calls for a $1-billion "Race to the Top"-style grant competition for states and a $260-million grant program that would give colleges incentives to innovate.
While Mr. Obama's recommendations are focused largely on institutions, states and public systems across the country are putting in place programs in line with the new proposals. Many states are enacting new or revamped formulas to appropriate funds for higher education based on credit or degree completions, collecting more-thorough data on how students and institutions are faring, and encouraging the use of technology and innovation in course delivery and student services.
Mr. Obama cited some of those efforts in his speech and in a fact sheet released with his remarks, including a competency-based education program at the University of Wisconsin and laws in Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee that peg state appropriations to college performance.
The president's proposals "seem to fit with what we're doing," said John G. Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
The impact on states and systems of any performance-based federal programs would depend heavily on the measures that the federal government chooses, Mr. Morgan said. Rewarding institutional progress and comparing institutions based on their mission, as Tennessee does, would be the right kind of measure, he said, instead of setting an arbitrary standard that would apply to all colleges.
F. King Alexander, president and chancellor of Louisiana State University, said his and many other public institutions were already doing their part to make higher education an affordable value. Tuition at Louisiana State is about $7,800 per year, he said.
"It's overdue to start talking about value in higher education and rewarding institutions that are trying to remain affordable," Mr. Alexander said.
Mr. Obama also called on state legislatures to increase spending on higher education and has recommended that the "Race to the Top" grants be tied to steady state appropriations—a maintenance-of-effort requirement that has been applied to the 2009 federal stimulus money for higher education as well as the College Access Challenge Grant program.
The maintenance-of-effort requirement for the stimulus money was important to preserving millions in state dollars for higher education, said Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
State disinvestment in higher education has been the primary reason for increasing tuition in recent years, Mr. Hurley said. But the policies that Mr. Obama has proposed put more responsibility on the institutions and too little on states, he said.
That the president made no strong proposal to hold states accountable for higher-education appropriations, Mr. Hurley said, suggests that there are no easy ways to do that.