President Obama kicked off a two-day bus tour geared toward selling his proposals for college affordability with a speech at the University of Buffalo today. Will they actually work to make college affordable? I have doubts.
August 23, 2013

President Obama made his case for college affordability on Thursday in a speech at the University of Buffalo before kicking off a two-day bus tour of college campuses to promote the plan.

His plan consists of three prongs:

  • Rate colleges according to which deliver the best value for students' tuition dollars
  • Reward campuses that find innovative ways of educating students
  • Restructure student loans so they are more affordable and easier to repay.

I have no problem with the college rating idea. As a parent who stepped through the whole college selection process recently, I can attest to how difficult it is to navigate ratings published by so-called independent rating sources who aren't necessarily focused on what is important to me. Of course, he's tasking Arne Duncan with developing that system, so I'm sure we'll see ratings that skew value toward campuses with lots of online learning courses and less in-classroom time.

I see some serious holes in his ideas for rewarding innovation, though. Here's what he said about that:

The second thing we want to do is to encourage more colleges to embrace innovative new ways to prepare our students for a 21st century economy and maintain a high level of quality without breaking the bank.

So let me talk about some alternatives that are already out there. Southern New Hampshire University gives course credit based on how well students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom. So the idea would be if you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less and you save money. (Applause.) The University of Wisconsin is getting ready to do the same thing.

You’ve got Central Missouri University -- I went there, and they’ve partnered with local high schools and community colleges so that their students can show up at college and graduate in half the time because they’re already starting to get college credits while they’re in high school or while they’re in a two-year college, so by the time they get to a four-year college they’re saving money. (Applause.)

Universities like Carnegie Mellon, Arizona State, they’re starting to show that online learning can help students master the same material in less time and often at lower cost. Georgia Tech, which is a national leader in computer science, just announced it will begin offering an online master’s degree in computer science at a fraction of the cost of a traditional class, but it’s just as rigorous and it’s producing engineers who are just as good.

I don't think it's a stretch to imagine online learning working for a major like computer science. I can see that as one particular branch of academia that probably works well online. However, what appears to be missing from this innovation piece is student engagement.

There are many students who go to college with no idea of what their major will be or what their path will be. I have one of those. It's a source of frustration for her, but she's beginning to see a pathway because she is taking a number of classes in a number of different disciplines where she's beginning to have a sense of where she's engaging in the material and where she's not. How do those students fare in an environment where they might master the material quickly but not necessarily engage with it and with other students? I worry that this is really code for turning public universities into cookie-cutter diploma mills instead of institutions of higher learning.

The third prong of his plan is one I support wholeheartedly, but don't imagine Congress cooperating. Here are the details on the student loan modifications Obama wants:

So, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, two years ago, I capped loan repayments at 10 percent of a student’s post-college income. We called it Pay-As-You-Earn. And it, along with some other income-driven repayment plans, have helped more than 2.5 million students so far.

But there are two obstacles that are preventing more students from taking advantage of it. One is that too many current and former students aren’t eligible, which means we’ve got to get Congress to open up the program for more students. (Applause.) And we’re going to be pushing them to do that.

The other obstacle is that a lot of students don't even know they're eligible for the program. So starting this year, we’re going to launch a campaign to help more borrowers learn about their repayment options and we’ll help more student borrowers enroll in Pay-As-You-Earn. So if you went to college, you took out debt, you want to be a teacher, and starting salary for a teacher is, let’s say, $35,000, well, only 10 percent of that amount is what your loan repayment is. Now, if you're making more money, you should be paying more back. But that way, everybody has a chance to go to college; everybody has a chance to pursue their dreams.

Capping student loan payments as a percentage of income is a good start, and broadening that program is good too. A better solution would be to make sure students don't have to dig themselves into debt at all. But it's a start, and a good one.

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