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College affordability becomes election year priority

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Section: News

February 3, 2012

President Barack Obama asked the crowd at the University of Michigan last week, “How can we make sure that everybody is getting the kind of education they need to personally succeed but also to build up this nation?”

The president gave specific details of his proposal to help make college a more affordable and realistic opportunity for students and families. The plan, which Obama first proposed in his State of the Union address earlier this month, promises to lower costs and increase the amount of money colleges receive to lend as various types of loans.

The first part of his plan proposes a “shopping sheet” that will force colleges to be very transparent about how much financial aid they offer and how much it truly costs to go to college. Essentially, the shopping sheet will allow prospective families to compare more easily the financial aid packages that each college offers, making decisions about college affordability easier to navigate.

This part of the proposal, according to Professor Michael Coiner (ECON), would set in motion some type of competition among colleges and could eventually help to keep prices down a bit.

The second part of Obama’s plan involves a grading system, in which the government will rate each college’s graduation rate and will also assess how well their graduates are doing in finding jobs and the kinds of salaries they are earning.

Coiner sees this part of Obama’s plan as having both pros and cons.

“On the one hand, families will have more information about what the chances are of their child graduating, finding a job and earning a decent salary. On the other hand, it might be that some universities, in order to look better on the report, will lower their graduation standards and essentially try to graduate everyone whether they learn anything or not.”

Another problem that Coiner sees with this grading system is the variations and specializations between schools. Public universities in the past few years have faced substantial budget cuts, which have in turn significantly decreased their graduation rates. Coiner explained that when the public looks at graduation rates, many are blindsided by the facts and do not realize how budget cuts directly affect graduation rates.

Many universities, Brandeis included, have historically focused on maintaining a well-balanced liberal arts education, in which popular majors can range anywhere from business to chemistry. Other institutions have concentrated on a different audience, who they train to be social workers and elementary school teachers—professions that earn lower salaries. This, in turn, makes for a system that rates each school against one another, not keeping in mind that every school holds different values, sizes and budgets.

“I think that publishing a college scorecard would have to be very carefully done. We do have one out there already, the U.S. News and Report, and that’s not free of problems because schools will manipulate their data to look better in the federal ranking,” Coiner said. “It is possibly a very good idea if it’s done carefully, but we don’t know yet exactly what it’s going to consist of.”

The third part of Obama’s plan uses federal aid—work study and Perkins Loans for example—as an incentive for colleges to hold costs down. Essentially, colleges that have not in the past succeeded in holding costs down would get their federal aid reduced.

Coiner believes this part of the proposal will most likely have to be passed through Congress and that it will be very difficult to pass given the current economy, since in the short-run it would cost money to expand this idea.

The foreseeable problem with trying to get colleges to reduce their costs is an overall decline in the quality of education.

“In an effort to cut costs, some schools might resort to larger classes and more adjunct faculty,” Coiner says. “Public universities, especially, are at the mercy of their state governments. They are faced with a tough choice: They either have to cut costs or raise tuition.”

Critics are arguing against Obama’s proposal saying that it is extremely difficult to hold down costs. Unfortunately, cutting costs could mean a lower quality education, in which case families would have to think carefully and thoroughly about the future.

With all of this said, some of Obama’s proposals will potentially increase government spending, and but it isn’t clear yet how he intends to pay for it. It is not yet a fully detailed report and until then, prospective students and families should keep this in mind as they process the realities of college affordability.

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