College Associations, Congressional Leaders React to President Obama’s College Affordability Plan

​Reactions from associations of colleges and universities and congressional Republicans to President Obama’s multi-point college affordability plan range from cautious to negative. In speeches last week, the president outlined what he termed “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class: Making College More Affordable.”

While calling it “a sweeping, thoughtful proposal,” American Council on Education President Molly Corbett Broad cautioned, “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.”

American Association of Community Colleges President Walter Bumphus expressed opposition to the president’s proposal to tie financial aid funding to a college ratings system. “The federal government should not ‘rate’ colleges,” Bumphus said. “Community colleges do not support private entities ranking community colleges, and they oppose the federal government's doing likewise. Furthermore, tying federal student aid to ratings is problematic.”

Congressional Republicans, whose support will be needed to enact some of the president’s proposals, also gave the plan a mixed reaction.

“While I am pleased the president’s new plan recognizes the importance of promoting innovation and competition in higher education, I remain concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage — and even lead to federal price controls,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, noted that several states, including his own home state, are testing the concept of accountability funding of higher education. But he cautioned, “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.”

The president’s plan includes the following key components:

  • A new college rating system, which the U.S. Department of Education would establish prior to 2015, that would compare colleges with similar missions based on access for disadvantaged students, affordability and outcomes — such as graduation and transfer rates, and graduate earnings. Beginning in 2018, assuming Congress authorizes the change, the college ratings system would be used to allocate federal financial aid dollars.
  • A $1 billion Race to the Top program to encourage maintenance of higher education funding efforts by state governments and reforms to improve college outcomes.
  • A bonus to colleges and universities that enroll and graduate low- and moderate-income students, as well as a requirement that schools with high dropout rates disburse student aid over the course of a semester, rather than in a lump sum.
  • A $260 million “First in the World” fund to test and evaluate innovative approaches to higher education.
  • A reduction in regulatory barriers, and waivers for “experimental sites.”
  • Extension to all student-borrowers of the Pay As You Earn repayment option, which permits borrowers to limit their monthly payments to 10 percent of their discretionary income.

Congress likely will consider President Obama’s proposals as it begins work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.