Obama’s Plan For College Affordability

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 20: U.S. President Barack Obama shares a moment with current team owner Stephen Ross and placekicker of the 1972 Miami Dolphins Garo Yepremian during an East Room event August 20, 2013 at the White House in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The program for college affordability that the President is going to lay out later today and over the next couple of days has three major planks.

Taking the last first since it’ll have the most immediate impact on people’s lives, he wants to bring debt relief to people currently burdened by student loans. That means making all borrowers eligible for income-based loan repayments that will allow people to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income. More importantly it means trying to spearhead an interagency process to publicize the existence of this option, since even under current eligibility rules it looks like there’s a relatively low level of uptake. Coordination and publicity don’t require congressional action, so if the White House can do this in an effective way it’s a nice simple way to provide some help to people.

Second, he wants to encourage more innovation in the higher education space. This all relates to a lot of what’s been in the media about MOOCs and technology and so forth. The most concrete proposal is that he wants to create a $260 million First In The World Fund to pay for higher education innovation and also to direct some of the Department of Labor’s existing stream of community college grants to this kind of purpose. Arguably more importantly, the White House says they’re going to try to provide some regulatory flexibility and relief to institutions that want to try to innovate. Obviously one man’s regulatory flexibility is another man’s gutting of oversight so we’ll have to see what this amounts to in practice.

The third part, though, is the most important even though it almost certainly won’t bear meaningful fruit before Obama leaves office. I have a whole column about the administration’s underlying vision of what’s wrong with higher education, and this is their proposal to fix it. They want to put together a rating system for American colleges that will be based on the quality of the instruction and the value proposition rather than a US News-style rating of the inputs. Then the vision is that down the road this rating system could become a guide for federal money. Maybe very low-ranking institutions would become ineligible for Pell Grants while very highly-rated ones would get bonuses. As I lay out in the column, “make an outputs-based rating system” is both extremely modest and in its implications incredibly radical. And in principle, it’s absolutely the right thing to do. But whether you can actually devise a system that’s credible and sustainable remains to be seen.