Making college affordable

HIGHER EDUCATION: President Obama's higher education plan offers solutions to important issues affecting students but misses the big picture

It is common knowledge that American higher education is need of repair. Recognizing the immediacy of the issue, President Barack Obama laid out a plan last week that aims to create a system of affordability ratings for colleges nationwide. The announcement is a positive development, in spite of some serious flaws based on the limited facts available.

The heart of the initiative is to tether the billions of dollars in federal student aid to colleges’ ratings, incentivizing administrative reforms that make higher education affordable to more students. Additionally, payments on federal student loans would be capped at 10 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income. Capping loan payments is unequivocal progress, as is government demands for colleges to be honest about the full cost of a degree.

But as positive as all this may be, it remains a Band-Aid on American higher education’s broken leg. The fundamentals of the problem have not changed.

As a result of this year’s sequester cuts, UC Berkeley lost millions in research funding that otherwise would have gone to invaluable scientific work. Twenty-six years ago, state funding accounted for 54 percent of the campus’s budget; today, it makes up less than 15 percent. UC tuition has soared over the last decade, more than doubling to an in-state rate that’s more than $13,000 per year. The solution is somewhat more straightforward: Increase federal and state funding for higher education, and expand access to community colleges for those who need them most.

Clearly, it is a constructive goal to give prospective college students more information on potential places of study. But wouldn’t a simpler and far more effective approach be to advocate for a public education system in which students don’t have to take on unmanageable loads of debt in order to get a degree?

While Obama’s plan does take on the issue of college affordability, it still ties student aid to an individual college’s success. As critics of the plan have noted, incentivizing “good” affordability practices has the unfortunate side effect of placing schools with struggling, debt-ridden students into a trap where they do not get access to necessary resources to strengthen their institutions.

The president’s plan has undeniable strengths. But a sketchy ratings system whose central focus lacks a plan to get more dollars into starved public budgets does not a forward-thinking strategy make.