Experts doubt viability of Obama’s college affordability plan

Higher education experts are casting doubt on the Obama administration’s highly publicized proposal last week to link financial aid funds to colleges’ academic performances.

The proposal, which Obama announced Thursday at the University of Buffalo, would rank colleges based on factors such as student debt, graduation rates, tuition and graduate’s earnings as well as low-income student enrollment. But experts such as Sandy Baum, a senior fellow in GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said they are concerned by the lack of details released about the system.

Baum said she had too many questions about the methodology, and did not expect it to materialize.

“It’s not like somebody has come up with, ‘here is a list of the factors we will consider. Here is how each of those factors will be measured and here is how they will be rated,'” she said.

The proposal, which would disburse less student aid funds to universities that falter in the rankings, also does not explain how students with financial need would be protected if the federal government withheld funds to their colleges. If Congress approves the proposal, the government would dole out financial aid based on the value scores as early as 2018.

If a college fails to graduate enough low-income students, for example, it could lose Pell Grant funds under the president’s plan, Baum said, which could impact most college students who attend state universities.

“That just doesn’t make any sense at all,” Baum, who is also a senior College Board analyst, said. “So if you live in a state with lousy state colleges, then we’re going to give you lower Pell Grant awards?”

But Baum said the proposal is not targeted at institutions like GW because the nation’s top schools already dole out massive amounts of financial aid.

University President Steven Knapp, who praised the plan, said he was also pleased that Obama will seek feedback from university presidents.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
University President Steven Knapp called Obama’s college affordability proposal aligned with GW’s goals, but is waiting for more details.

“Affordability, access, and student success – both while our students are here and after they graduate – are issues about which I care deeply,” Knapp said in an email.

Knapp touted the University’s commitment to increasing financial aid, boosting career resources and freeing up existing University funds for academic programs as consistent with the president’s goals.

But Knapp said that he could not address specific questions about the plan’s impact on GW until more details are released.

Despite the scant details, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities’ Vice President for Government Affairs Sarah Flanagan said the proposal threatens to change the nature of federal aid allocation.

While she supports the idea of creating incentives and making universities reconsider the depth of their commitment to student aid, Flanagan said the initiative may not in fact “empower” students looking for an affordable education.

“I’m very worried about changing it from student aid to something based on institutional behavior,” Flanagan said. “That’s what the president is implying.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.