White House Reassures Independent Colleges That They Will Be Consulted on Affordability Policy

January 31, 2012

Just four days after President Obama made an impassioned speech warning colleges that they may risk losing federal funds if they do not keep tuition costs under control, a top White House official reassured a group of presidents and representatives from independent colleges that the administration will consult them while developing the proposed policy.

At the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities on Tuesday, Zakiya Smith, senior White House education adviser, said in a panel discussion that the president's proposal to link federal aid to college affordability was kept vague on purpose.

"The more and more we thought about it, we said it would be better to outline what our principles are and then engage in a dialogue with the entire higher-education community," Ms. Smith said. "We want to have an honest and open dialogue, and that's part of the reason I accepted this invitation, knowing that a couple days before we would have announced this plan."

The plan, outlined by President Obama last Friday at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, would award campus-based federal aid—Perkins Loans, Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants—to institutions based on whether they hold down net tuition, provide "good value," and serve low-income students. It would also provide $1-billion to states that contain tuition and improve outcomes. Some college officials have expressed concern over the details of the plan, speculating that it may hinder their institutions' freedom when setting tuition prices.

Ms. Smith sympathized with the college heads at the meeting, noting that two external barriers to affordability include decreased state appropriations for higher education and the pressure that college leaders face to spend on new facilities that make their institutions more attractive to potential students.

"It's more fun to have ribbon-cutting ceremonies than it is to have tuition-cutting ceremonies sometimes," she said.

At the Naicu meeting, college presidents defended their efforts to make their institutions more affordable. Huntington University's president, G. Blair Dowden, who served on the panel with Ms. Smith, said private colleges are working to hold down tuition costs, citing his own university's loan-repayment assistance program, which he said increased retention and graduation rates.

"Loan-repayment assistance is indeed a win-win for both the university and for our graduates," Mr. Dowden said.

Lanny Hall, president of Hardin-Simmons University, echoed Mr. Dowden's sentiment and said the government should seek the advice of college officials nationally when developing the plan.

"A lot of work on affordability has been done by the people in this room, and there is a lot of knowledge outside of the Beltway," Mr. Hall said.