Getting college costs under control
President Obama’s proposal to rate America’s colleges is the most important educational policy step taken in a long while. In late August, on a bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania, the president unveiled his plan to rate colleges on access, affordability and student outcomes and to tie federal support for student loans to these metrics.
At a time when America’s viability depends on increasing the number and proportion of citizens with college degrees, we are sabotaging our nation’s future by allowing college costs to spiral out of control, thereby burdening a generation with onerous debt and blocking others from even entering the college gates.
Over the last five years, tuition at public four-year colleges increased 27 percent beyond inflation, while at private colleges, that increase is 13 percent.
One explanation for rampant tuition increases centers on the economic crash of 2008. Since the bust, colleges have failed to curb spending on bricks and mortar, tenured professors, health care and technology, while states have passed off increases in higher education spending directly to students and their families.
This helps explain why tuition costs have risen faster than health care, energy and even housing.
Because only the rich can afford today’s college costs, middle- and low-income students have been forced to borrow money and absorb massive loan debt. Today, two-thirds of those graduating from college are debt-ridden: a per-student average that’s close to $27,000. Student loan debt in the United States totals a staggering $1.2 trillion.
It’s ironic that as the cost for college grows, the greater the need for higher education. We, as a nation, need college graduates more today than ever before. A college degree currently has the same value on the job market that a high school diploma had a generation ago. In 10 years, there will be 20 million jobs in the United States that go unfilled because we don’t have enough qualified workers.
As the leader of a national organization that is currently helping 20,000 low-income students get to college, I see firsthand the impact of an exploitive tuition system. Josh, a young man from Harlem whose mother is on welfare, is saddled with a $14,000 tuition bill from Penn State before he can return for his senior year. Tiffany graduates from the University of California system owing $38,000 — more money than her single father has earned the past two years.
These are real stories, and there are countless more out there.
Now there’s finally a long-overdue plan that promises to curb costs, reduce student debt, and advocate for students like Josh and Tiffany and the thousands of other young people being priced out of the one opportunity — a college degree — that can pull them (and in many cases, their families) out of poverty. This plan will rate colleges on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates and the number of low-income students who attend.
The new rating system would be adopted by 2015, and three years later, students attending highly rated colleges would receive larger grants and more affordable loans.
No surprise, there’s already plenty of opposition to the rating plan. Lamar Alexander, current U.S. senator and former university president and U.S. secretary of education, believes that ratings should be created by each state and not Washington. Others have expressed concern about the flaws inherent in formulas and data collection.
While the states offer about $12 billion each year in student loans, the federal government spends $150 billion annually, giving the feds the leverage they need to prod colleges into making desperately needed changes.
Of course, the metrics offered by the Department of Education need to be refined, but we have four years to do so. This plan is a critical first step and one we as a nation cannot afford to miss. Will data collection be difficult? Yes, but the Obama plan points the dial in the right direction, and it will make colleges pay attention. Making college affordable isn’t just good for students. It’s absolutely necessary for our country.
This rating plan unlike the U.S. News and World Report rubric is not a beauty contest; it’s about substance. It’s about making colleges affordable and truly accessible. It’s about reviving the American dream.
The plan is not about politics, but we need politicians to make it truly effective. Contact your legislator to express your support. Get on board.
Rick Dalton is president and CEO of College For Every Student.