Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Obama Plans Shake-Up in Higher Education System

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Obama Plans Shake-Up in Higher Education System

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Promising to "shake up the current system," President Barack Obama on Thursday began a two-day push for an ambitious plan to direct a greater portion of federal aid to students attending the most efficient and affordable schools that produce graduates who end up in good-paying jobs.

In upstate New York, on the first leg of a bus tour that will bring him to Scranton, Pa., today, Mr. Obama called for a new system to evaluate colleges on graduation rates, average salary of graduates, tuition and average student loan debt. And he wants Congress to direct a larger portion of federal aid to students attending schools with good ratings.

Colleges that keep costs low are the ones that will get more federal aid, he said.

"I've got confidence that our country's colleges and universities will step up to the plate if they're given the right incentives. They, too, should want to do the right thing for students," Mr. Obama told a crowd of 1,300 Thursday evening at Henninger High School in Syracuse.

"Some of these reforms won't be popular with everybody because some folks are making out just fine under the status quo. But my concern is not to look out just for the institutions; I want to look out for the students who these institutions exist to serve," Mr. Obama said.

Earlier Thursday, at the University at Buffalo, he told a crowd of 7,000 that colleges no longer will be able to continue hiking tuition every year, passing the costs on to students, families and taxpayers.

"Higher education is still the best ticket to upward mobility in America, and if we don't do something about keeping it within reach, it will create problems for economic mobility for generations to come, and that's not acceptable," he said.

Students and taxpayers deserve efficiency, affordability and value, he said.

"There are schools out there [that] are terrific values. But there are also schools out there that have higher default rates than graduation rates," he said. "Taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing students to go to schools where the kids aren't graduating."

At the same time, the administration wants to reward schools providing the best value, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters earlier Thursday.

"Where you see people doing the right thing -- keeping costs down, serving more Pell Grant recipients, making sure graduation rates are going up -- you want to see good actors be rewarded. You want to see them get more resources. You want to see more students walking into their doors," Mr. Duncan said. "And where you are not seeing that kind of commitment, you want to challenge the status quo."

Some Republicans are concerned that the plan would penalize good students attending schools that don't meet the government benchmarks.

"If you go to an accredited school, you should be able to get a loan, and the interest rate should be the same for all students at all schools," said Rob Gleason, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. "If the president wants to somehow make schools more efficient, that's a whole other matter, but [to] tie that to student aid doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me."

Mr. Duncan said the aim is to make college more accessible to the middle class.

"There's a growing sense that college is for the wealthy, for rich folks, and not for hardworking people who are doing the right thing every single day," he said.

Republicans say they want to help young people, too, but think the president's focus is too narrow. He should be pushing so that students can get good-paying jobs after they graduate, Mr. Gleason said in a phone interview Thursday.

He said too many students are graduating with $200,000 in student loans and winding up with jobs that pay only $30,000 a year.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Scranton downplayed GOP criticism of the president's plan.

"I would take the criticisms by Republicans seriously if they have a strategy for higher education, but I haven't heard one," said Mr. …

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