Published Online: January 27, 2012
Published in Print: February 1, 2012, as Obama Rolls Out New Higher Education Initiatives

Obama Rolls Out New Higher Education Initiatives

President Barack Obama hits hard on college costs and calls for mandatory school attendance to age 18 in his State of the Union address.
—Evan Vucci/AP

In his State of the Union address and a follow-up speech outlining a major new higher education initiative, President Barack Obama took aim at an issue that resonates with a constituency likely to be important to his re-election campaign: college students struggling to pay off their student loans.

A marquee pieceRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader would be a new, $1 billion version of his signature Race to the Top competition aimed at encouraging states to improve their higher education systems—while requiring that they maintain adequate levels of funding for higher education if they hope to win one of the grants.

The adminstration also is seeking to create a $55 million grant contest, dubbed the "First in the World" competition, to help institutions scale up promising strategies in areas such as technology and early-college preparation.

And Mr. Obama last week put universities on notice that they may be in danger of losing key federal student financial aid if they don't keep tuition in check and are unable to graduate higher numbers of students, including those eligible for Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college.

Specifically, the administration wants to reconfigure the formula for distributing campus-based aid, such as that in the Perkins Loan Program, to favor institutions that hold tuition down while graduating higher numbers of low-income students.

Both proposals would require congressional approval.

But the president's State of the Union speech last week largely skirted elements of his K-12 agenda that have met with disdain from congressional Republicans—or that could alienate teachers, who traditionally play a large role in Democrats' get-out-the-vote efforts.

For instance, while President Obama said schools should have flexibility to "stop teaching to the test," he steered clear of discussing his support for teacher pay-for-performance programs and mandatory teacher evaluations that rely, at least in part, on student test scores.

And he passed up the opportunity to mention two of his administration's premier K-12 initiatives: the Race to the Top education redesign competition, and a plan to offer states wiggle room under key pieces of the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for embracing certain education overhaul priorities.

Both of those proposals have been at the center of partisan discord, with Republicans threatening to jettison the Race to the Top from the federal budget and questioning the administration's authority to issue nclb waivers. Instead, Mr. Obama focused on initiatives that will seem to be an easy sell with college students.

"This is likely to be a very popular set of proposals," Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., said in an interview after the State of the Union address, before details of the higher education proposal were released.

In particular, he said, the college-affordability issue should resonate with young voters, who were a key part of Mr. Obama's victory in 2008. "He's going to need them again," Mr. McGuinn said.

In an address that emphasized four pillars—manufacturing, energy, worker training, and American values—President Obama advocated a handful of concrete K-12 policies to the assembled members of Congress.

For instance, he urged states to raise the age for compulsory school attendance to 18. "We ... know that when students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma," he said.

In recent years, some states have moved to raise the dropout age, not always with success. For instance, in Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, has fought unsuccessfully to raise the compulsory-attendance age to 18, from 16, during the past two legislative sessions.

The federal government doesn't have control of policy on how long students must attend school, an issue that historically has been within states' purview.

Also in the precollegiate arena, Mr. Obama wants to develop a competitive program that would challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to comprehensively improve the teaching profession. That would appear to be a twist on the existing Teacher Incentive Fund, which the Obama administration has proposed expanding to include principals.

But higher education took a more prominent place in the speech. The president reiterated his call for Congress to approve some version of the DREAM Act, which would offer young immigrants who came illegally to the United States as children a path to citizenship through going to college or serving in the military.

And he called directly on colleges and universities to hold down costs in order to make higher education more accessible, warning that they risk a loss of federal money if they are unable to hold the line on tuition. "Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will godown," he said.

President Obama's plan, fleshed out in a speech delivered at the University of Michigan late last week, would create a new program that appears to build on an incentive in the original Race to Top, at the K-12 level, which rewarded states that signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort by states to create more uniform, rigorous standards that prepare students for postsecondary education.

In addition to maintaining "adequate" funding for higher education, states hoping to win a grant would have to smooth the transition between K-12 and higher education by aligning entrance and exit standards between the two systems.

New Competition

Mr. Obama also proposed a $55 million competition that would offer grants to colleges and universities to scale up promising practices in areas including technology and college preparation. At first blush, that program appears modeled on the Investing in Innovation grant program, which offered similar rewards to schools and nonprofits.

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Another new proposal would revise the Perkins Loan Program and other campus-based aid programs. Right now, that aid is distributed under a formula that rewards schools in part for the number of years they have participated in the system. Under the change, colleges that kept tuition under control and graduated a relatively large share of Pell Grant-eligible students would be rewarded with a larger share of the grants.

The administration is also planning to create a "college scorecard" to make it easier for students and parents to choose a college that they can afford and that will help advance the students' career goals. The so-called "shopping sheet" would include postgraduation earnings and employment information for a college's students, according to published reports.

Other higher education proposals unveiled last week includedoubling the number of work-study jobs, which allow students to work part time on campus to defray their college costs; making permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides up to $10,000 in tax breaks for tuition over four years of college; and keeping the interest rate on subsidized Stafford Loans from doubling on July 1 of this year as it is set to do under current law.

Mr. Obama also called on businesses to partner with community colleges to help spur job creation.

David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, said he was encouraged that the president emphasized the need for states to do more to support higher education.

"Our colleges have done a great deal to curb their costs," he said. "But the reality is that tuition will continue to increase if states continue to cut their support."

Vol. 31, Issue 19, Pages 16,19

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