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4:09 pm
Thu August 22, 2013

Obama's Plans To Cut College Costs Met With Skepticism

President Barack Obama is cheered as he arrives to speak at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 in Buffalo, N.Y., where he began his two day bus tour to speak about college financial aid.
Credit Keith Srakocic / AP

President Barack Obama may have trouble persuading the higher education community to support his plan unveiled Thursday in Buffalo to reform American colleges and universities.

Under the president’s plan, for the first time the federal government would rate colleges and universities for lowering their tuition and increasing access.

"It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results," Obama said, before suggesting online techologies, such as massive open online courses, or MOOCs, could curb costs, maintain quality and increase access for nontraditional students.

If approved by Congress, the plan would include so-called competency-based degrees. Credits would be based on what students can show they know rather than the amount of time they spend in a classroom. It also calls for three-year degree and dual enrollment programs so that high school students might get a head start – and save later.

Those ideas, Obama admitted, are not popular with everyone, especially those who benefit from the status quo.

“I think he’s going to do it wrong, because he’s going to use the bully pulpit," said Robert Zemsky, chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "Bully pulpit doesn’t do very much.”

Zemsky, who just wrote a book about making American higher education a sustainable enterprise, said  Obama is taking the wrong approach.

"He’s just going to try to use the shock-and-awe theory: ‘Well, I’ll shame you into doing things differently,'" Zemsky added. "That’s not actually how you get things done differently.”

The White House is floating the idea of federal report cards that would tie federal financial aid to how well colleges increase access and affordability and improve their outcomes, including graduation rates and job placement. But Zemsky said real higher education reform isn’t about squeezing bad costs out of the industry but reengineering the entire system to recognize that technology, the student body and the labor market has changed.

As the president tours college campuses in upstate New York and Pennsylvania to lay out his plan, the White House said there’s room for compromise in Washington. “Big data” can predict student success and advise them whether they’re getting good value for their investment, the Obama administration argues. Higher education officials, though, worry such a federal ratings system would turn colleges and universities into retailers.

American Council on Education president Molly Corbett Broad said the organization would seriously consider and to investigate President Obama's higher education proposals.

"As usual, the devil is in the details, but we are encouraged that the administration has invited the higher education community to be part of this conversation," she said. "We will be vigilant in working to prevent tying the receipt of aid to metrics, which could have a profoundly negative impact on the very students and families the administration is trying to help."

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