WASHINGTON – President Obama plans to take on rising tuition prices with speeches later this week that the White House promises will include fresh, serious proposals. But those claims were met largely with skepticism here, even from supporters of the president’s repeated pledge to “shake up” higher education.
On Tuesday the White House distributed a message from Obama in which he said would seek to make college more affordable with “real reforms that would bring lasting change.” The president said he would release the plan’s details during a two-day bus tour that begins Thursday.
“Just tinkering around the edges won't be enough,” the president wrote. “To create a better bargain for the middle class, we have to fundamentally rethink about how higher education is paid for in this country.”
Obama injected some tension, saying the proposals “won't all be popular with everyone -- including some who've made higher education their business.”
Some observers wondered if the word “business” might be aimed at for-profit higher education, which is gearing up for another fight with the administration over gainful employment regulations. Others, however, thought the president might be calling out all of higher education by implying that it is a money-making industry that sometimes acts in its own interests rather than those of students.
The president is personally interested in college affordability, according to many here. He and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, have on multiple occasions summoned college leaders to Washington for chats. And on Tuesday he called the tuition issue a "personal mission," again citing the long years it took him and Michelle Obama to repay their student loans.
The urgency is due to public anger over rising student debt levels. Federal data released earlier this week showed that 71 percent of Americans received some form of financial aid last year. And that number is rising rapidly.
Figuring out how to encourage higher education to rein in costs is tricky, however.
States generally call the shots with public universities, while trustees have much of the oversight power with private colleges. Even if there were federal policies that could make a difference, getting a deeply divided Congress to sign off on the White House’s policy proposals is far from easy.
Some higher education experts here wondered if the president’s speech might be a first salvo in the looming effort to renew the Higher Education Act. That law, which governs the delivery of federal financial aid, is due to be renewed as early as next year. But most sources said they would be surprised if the bus tour this week yielded any big new plans.
Obama put colleges “on notice” about tuition increases during his State of the Union address last year. He later suggested using campus-based financial aid programs to reward or punish colleges based on their net prices. But that proposal has not moved forward.
Then, in a written statement that accompanied his most recent State of the Union, Obama made a vague reference to the accreditation system’s role in controlling college costs.
He said accreditors should look at measures of value and affordability. Or, instead, he said Congress should establish a “new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results."
Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and former policy adviser in the Obama administration's Education Department, said she has liked some of the president’s plans.
For example, Laitinen praised the inclusion of higher education money in the “paying for success” section of the White House budget proposal last year. That provision would have allowed non-accredited institutions to be eligible for federal aid based on successfully completed associate degrees their students earned. The degrees would have been free to students. (Note: This paragraph has been changed from an earlier version to correct a reference to the "paying for success" proposal.)
“Those are bold items,” she said. “But they haven’t actually gone anywhere.”
The president means business, an Obama spokesman this week told the White House press corps. And the administration is keeping a tight lid on the plan until Thursday.
“It’ll be good,” the spokesman said, according to The Hill. “Stay tuned.”
Obama’s bus tour will begin in New York, with planned stops in Buffalo, Syracuse and Binghamton. He will speak at the State University of New York campus in Binghamton. The president then heads to Pennsylvania, with a planned stop at Lackawanna College. Vice President Biden will join him for some of the trip.