WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama unveiled a series of sweeping college affordability and accountability proposals on Thursday that, for the first time, would rate colleges on key metrics and eventually tie federal aid to schools based on how they measure up.
While Obama’s higher-education plan quickly ran into skepticism and opposition elsewhere, Maine college administrators, students and lawmakers offered largely positive reviews of the president’s vision of essentially grading colleges on their affordability.
“I think that is a good way to hold colleges accountable for the services they provide and for how affordable they are,” said Jimmy Jung, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maine at Orono.
While the issue of college costs is a trending topic in higher education circles, “it’s not surprising that the federal government is driving this discussion,” Jung said.
While the president’s most ambitious proposal, which calls for the U.S. Department of Education to create a rating system for both public and private colleges by 2015, can be put in place through executive action, the president’s more controversial proposal — linking the amount of federal financial aid colleges get to those ratings by 2018 — would require congressional approval.
Ratings would assess institutions on a host of criteria, including tuition costs, scholarships offered, percentage of Pell grants that go to students from low- and middle-income families, average debt load of students, graduation rates and post-graduation earnings.
“There are schools out there who are terrific values,” Obama told students in Buffalo, N.Y., his first stop on a two-state bus tour. “But there are also schools out there that have higher default rates than graduation rates, and taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing students to go to schools where the kids aren’t graduating.”
Obama said the nation is in the midst of “a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” with college costs rising 250 percent during the past three decades, while average family incomes have risen only 16 percent.
The result, Obama said, is many students having to choose between forgoing a college education or taking on enormous debts.
In Maine, more than 70 percent of graduates from public and private colleges and universities in 2011 began their post-collegiate lives with student loan debt. The average debt load among Maine graduates that year was $26,046, slightly below the national average of $26,600, according to a report from the Project on Student Debt. By comparison, Maine’s median household income as of the last census was $47,898.
Some national higher education officials greeted Obama’s proposal with trepidation. Colleges probably will be concerned about losing federal dollars, while other observers worried that the ratings could have the opposite effect by prompting colleges to only admit higher-achieving students.
“This is extraordinarily complicated stuff, and it’s not clear we have the complete data or accurate data,” Molly Corbett Broad, the president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities in Washington, told The Associated Press.
Reaction from Maine’s colleges was more positive.
At Bowdoin College, where annual tuition and fees total $57,834, officials were more supportive about the affordability rating system.
“On the factors described today in President Obama’s plan — graduation rates, graduate earnings, affordability and access — we are confident that Bowdoin will measure very well,” Bowdoin spokesman Doug Cook said. “Bowdoin is committed to enrolling qualified students of all backgrounds, regardless of their ability to pay our fees.”
Cook said Bowdoin will provide $32.5 million in need-based financial aid this year. The average grant for students receiving aid this year will be $36,600. Bowdoin also boasts high first-year retention rates and six-year graduation rates — 96 percent and 94 percent, respectively.
In the UMaine system, roughly 84 percent of students receive need-based financial aid, Jung said.
Additionally, this year’s incoming freshman class will be the first to be offered a “financial literacy” program that is aimed at helping students and their families better understand the costs of their college education, the differences between federal and private loans and how best to manage their expenses to reduce debt.
The total cost to attend Bates College this year is $58,950, but with financial aid, the average “net cost” for 2013 is $21,402, according to data provided on an existing White House “college scorecard” website on affordability. Bates President Clayton Spencer praised the president for his “focus on access and results in higher education.”
“More than 45 percent of Bates students receive financial aid, with an average grant for those on aid in excess of $38,000,” Spencer said in a statement. “We work hard to support all of our students for success, and 93 percent of those who enter Bates graduate with a bachelor’s degree.”
Several past and present Maine college students were hopeful but skeptical that an affordability rating system would reduce costs.
Paul Grazia, a 29-year-old adult mental health case manager at Opportunity Alliance in Portland, is paying off $46,000 in student debt from his undergraduate studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin and graduate studies at the University of Southern Maine.
“I did my undergraduate at Beloit because I could play baseball there, and I did my graduate work at USM because it was the least expensive option around,” Grazia said. “I probably would have considered more options if there was an affordability rating system, but there’s only much you can afford, and I have some friends who have more than $100,000 in student debt.”
Kelsey Weber, 20, and Kara Munro, 21, will be juniors this year at the Maine College of Art in Portland.
By the time they graduate, Weber figures, she’ll owe about $40,000, while Monro’s total student debt load will be closer to $80,000.
Both said an affordability rating system would help students make better choices about higher education.
“I think some people don’t realize how much money is going into their education until they’ve spent it,” Monro said. “I think if you saw how much debt the average student has when they graduate from a school, it would help you decide whether you want to go to that school.”
Obama’s higher education agenda probably faces stiff challenges in the highly partisan Congress, despite the fact that some of his proposals have been implemented in states under Republican leadership.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, suggested a state-by-state approach would be preferable.
“Washington needs to be careful about taking a good idea for one state and forcing all 6,000 institutions of higher education to do the exact same thing, turning Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities,” Alexander said, according to The Associated Press.
But Maine’s Sen. Angus King, who along with Alexander was a key negotiator of the recent bipartisan compromise to overhaul the way student loan interest rates are set, said he was pleased to see the president put forward a college affordability proposal. In particular, King praised a plan to allow more students to take advantage of a program that caps monthly loan payments at 10 percent of income.
“The Senate has a real opportunity to tackle the issue of college affordability and the $1 trillion in outstanding student debt at the end of this year when we move to reauthorize the Higher Education Act,” King said. “I will work with the administration and my colleagues in Congress to make steady strides forward in that effort.”
White House officials said Thursday that the president plans to work on college affordability with many of the lawmakers who negotiated the student loan deal. King’s office confirmed Thursday that King has had discussions with the White House since the bill signing earlier this month but declined to provide further details of those discussions.