Published on theTimes-Tribune.com
August 25, 2013
Urica Carver dreams of a better future for her four daughters.
So the single mother received her associate degree from Lackawanna College and is now a criminal justice student at Keystone College.
She is already $27,000 in debt.
If a plan unveiled last week by President Barack Obama becomes a reality, Ms. Carver's daughters may have a chance of attending school with less debt and more opportunities.
Mr. Obama's plan, which he spoke about at Lackawanna College on Friday, would create a rating system for colleges that would eventually be tied to federal aid allocations. The plan would also encourage innovation and competition and would allow all student borrowers to cap their federal student loan payments at 10 percent of their monthly income.
"The soaring cost of higher education has become an increasing burden and barrier for too many young people," Mr. Obama said in Scranton. "College has never been more necessary, but it's never been more expensive."
The details of Mr. Obama's plan have drawn mixed reactions from educators and lawmakers locally and nationwide. Some applaud his plan, others worry that tying aid allocations to a federally-created rating system could be unfair and too far-reaching.
But everyone welcomes the discussion.
"I don't think any college president would argue that we don't need to address student debt," said Don Francis, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania. "It's definitely a problem."
The average tuition at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent over the past three decades. At the same time, income for "typical families" grew by only 16 percent, according to the White House. Students who attended school in Pennsylvania graduated with an average of $29,959 in debt.
The rating system proposed by the president aims to make schools more accountable for costs - and is the part of the plan that will be the most debated.
The system, which would be developed by the U.S. Department of Education, would compare the value offered by colleges, looking at measures such as access, affordability and outcomes, including graduation rates and graduate earnings.
Mr. Obama wants the new system in place by the 2015 school year, and have the ratings be tied to federal student aid by 2018. Students attending high-performing colleges would receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans. Congressional approval would be required.
Leaders of area colleges said they hope the rating system would be designed to account for the differences in the schools, such as mission and student body.
"You can't compare our students to students at the University of Scranton," said Mark Volk, president of Lackawanna College, a two-year open enrollment school with many first-generation college students.
Mr. Francis, whose Harrisburg-based organization represents about 100 private colleges in the state, said his board has been supportive of performance-spending initiatives in the past.
"We agree that schools that are doing a particularly bad job with students who are receiving federal aid should not be receiving as much federal aid," he said.
But sometimes what looks like a good concept can have problems. "Any time you start doing rankings, you may have schools that are doing well but could still fall in the bottom half," Mr. Francis said.
Sarah Keating, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Keystone College, also has concerns with the rating system.
"In the big picture, I think it's good that the government is looking at some kind of accountability," she said. "I don't know if his plan is realistic."
A school like Keystone produces more teachers or those who work in social services and other lower-income jobs, so graduate earnings should not be compared with prestigious, Ivy League private schools, she said. Graduation rates would also be different because those schools are dealing with different types of student populations, she said.
With pressure on schools to have high ratings, it could also lead schools to be unethical about what they report or to inflate grades, Ms. Keating said.
Sister Anne Munley, I.H.M., Ph.D., president of Marywood University, said the discussions of higher education must be broad and recognize that it is an investment, not a commodity.
"I think that everyone has great concerns with having our education be as cost effective as possible," she said.
Since the economic downturn of 2008, Marywood has increased its institution-funded scholarships and grants by $10 million, to a total of $34 million.
"We're very much involved in helping our students," she said.
On Friday, Ms. Carver introduced Vice President Joe Biden to the crowd of 2,700 at Lackawanna College. Her four daughters - 10, 9, 8 and 6 years old - waved American flags from the second level of bleachers.
"I want to be able to give them the education they deserve," the single mom said after the event. "It's hard enough in a two-parent household."
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who attended the president's speech, said more accountability in higher education is needed.
"Colleges and universities have to begin to face the fact that there are so many families that can't afford the great education they offer," he said. "The focus the president has brought on this issue is long overdue."
Mr. Casey said he will work to make the plan a reality.
Some of the actions Mr. Obama has proposed can be accomplished by executive order, and others, such as tying federal aid to the rating system, need to be accomplished by Congress.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, also agreed that something must be done to make college more affordable.
"A great challenge we face in Congress is how to help support institutions of higher education, parents and students, whether it is by reducing federal overreach, promoting increased transparency, or by removing politics from student loan programs," he said in a statement. "We need to review the details and make sure Congress has the proper oversight and legislative authority in all of his recommendations."
William A. Galston, Ph.D., a senior fellow of governance studies for the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, expects that when Congress resumes after Labor Day, legislators will spend the rest of the year dealing with fiscal policy and the debt ceiling.
But neither Democrats or Republicans can ignore the high costs of higher education, Dr. Galston said. While members of Congress may not have much time or energy left over, there will likely be hearings or discussion on the issue, he said.
The president is "putting his finger on a very real problem," he said. "I don't think this proposal is going to go away. Ordinary families are well aware that two pieces of their budget have risen much more rapidly than their incomes. One is health care. The other is education."
The president's plan would also promote innovation and competition, encouraging new approaches to improve learning and reduce costs. Students could earn credits based on proving competency, not seat time. Technology could also be used to redesign courses and cut infrastructure costs.
The plan also encourages dual enrollment programs, such as letting high school students take college courses before graduating. Many of the region's colleges already offer dual enrollment programs.
Joe Gagnon, president and chief operating officer of Penn Foster, a Scranton-based online education institution, said an online or blended model - in which students spend time in traditional courses as well as taking classes online - can lead to significant cost savings, he said.
Penn Foster is already working with community colleges to create online models, and those schools are seeing a cost savings.
"It is really the future," he said.