An Analysis Of Obama Higher Education Plan

February 2nd, 2012

Aiming High: The Keeping College Affordable
Initiative

By
Watson Scott Swail,
President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This morning, President Obama used the setting of staff and
students at the University of Michigan to unveil his Keeping College Affordable initiative. Based on his State
of the Union speech a few nights ago, we knew this was coming and we knew
mostly what it was about, and as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said
earlier this morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the initiative would involve both carrots and
sticks.

There are several components of the initiative, but the most
salient feature is a $1 billion incentive* fund to entice institutions to keep
costs down (the carrot). This program is patterned after the K-12 Race to the
Top program, which has provided incentive funding to states. The “stick” is the
President’s warning to institutions that if they don’t bring tuition fees
within reason, Congress will act. “You can’t assume that you’ll just jack up
tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the
funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”

It is easy to be cynical about these changes. Because the US
higher education system is so large and complex, attempting to make a real and
positive change in this system is inordinately difficult; perhaps impossible.
Understand that this “system” has over 2,000 public institutions alone, another
2,000 private, non-profits, and thousands of other proprietary institutions.
The public institutions run under the auspices of 50 state governments who have
the final say on what happens. But the federal government has some leverage
through Title IV (student aid) and research funds. Already, Title IV aid is
used as a lever to get institutions to complete IPEDs surveys each year (if
institutions don’t complete, they don’t get federal student aid funds,
including Pell, Direct Loans, and Work Study).

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