College affordability

When considering education policy, we face a dilemma regarding affordability. Many of us believe that it’s important to make college accessible to all people who are qualified to be admitted to a university. This is critical for growing or even maintaining the middle class in this country. Thus we have programs like grants and student loans.

Yet the availability of these funds provides little incentive for colleges to control costs. Over the years, college costs have skyrocketed as has student debt.

Some conservatives might argue that we shouldn’t be subsidizing college at all, but few agree with this line of thinking. America became great in large part due to our massive investments in higher education. The GI Bill helped to fuel the massive growth of the middle class following WWII.

So we need to continue to promote college education and help poor and middle class kids with affordability, but we need to inject some common sense controls into the system as well.

The Obama Administration is trying to address the problem, using some of the same incentives that were used to spur reform and innovation with their Race to the Top program for K-12 school systems.

President Obama is proposing a financial aid overhaul that for the first time would tie colleges’ eligibility for campus-based aid programs — Perkins loans, work-study jobs and supplemental grants for low-income students — to the institutions’ success in improving affordability and value for students, administration officials said.

Under the plan, which the president is expected to outline on Friday morning in a speech at the University of Michigan, the amount available for Perkins loans would grow to $8 billion, from the current $1 billion. The president also wants to create a $1 billion grant competition, along the lines of the Race for the Top program for elementary and secondary education, to reward states that take action to keep college costs down, and a separate $55 million competition for individual colleges to increase their value and efficiency.

The administration also wants to give families clearer information about costs and quality, by requiring colleges and universities to offer a “shopping sheet” that makes it easier to compare financial aid packages and — for the first time — compiling post-graduate earning and employment information to give students a better sense of what awaits them.

Many universities won’t be happy about this, particularly at a time when states are cutting back on education budgets. Yet the slavish devotion to more buildings and other expenses needs to stop. Having incentives to provide real value to students will change the calculation for university presidents and trustees.

Also, the notion of a shopping sheet is very important, as many college kids and their parents are clueless about the notion of costs vs benefits. There’s nothing wrong with a liberal arts degree, particularly if you have thoughts of going to grad school, but leaving undergrad with $120,000 worth of debt for an English degree is economic suicide. If kids start seeing the real costs as they vary from school to school, they will be more inclined to consider cost as a part of their decision on where to go to school. This of course is part of a larger problem where most Americans have very poor financial literacy, so these types of comparisons will encourage them to consider costs by giving them tools to make easy comparisons. As a part of that, college students will then be more likely to at least consider the economic value of their college major as well.

Given the current political environment, I won’t hold my breath on seeing the Republicans work with President Obama on any topic, even something like this that should be supported by both parties. Conservatives and liberals can argue about the size of government, both both should be working tirelessly to make government and its programs work better.

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