Good news for those of us who can’t wait until 9:45 this morning to hear the details of the President’s plan to put colleges “on notice”—we don’t have to. In the wee hours of the morning, the New York Times posted an article previewing the college affordability speech the President will give at the University of Michigan. There’s a lot in here—and the President will need Congress to help make it happen. Some of it, like a Race to the Top for college affordability, requires new money that might be a tough sell in this budgetary environment. What’s exciting is that the parts of the proposal with the most potential impact—tying financial aid to institutional “affordability and value” and creating college “shopping sheets”– would require little to no new money. Given the concerns about college costs expressed by members of Congress of all stripes, it seems there’s plenty of room for agreement and action here.
Linking financial aid eligibility to college costs is not a new idea. In 2003, Republican Congressman Buck McKeon proposed tying all financial aid to college costs. The President’s proposal is different in at least two critical ways. First, only financial aid that goes to institutions is on the table. On the one hand this makes sense, given that institutional behavioral change is the goal. On the other hand, campus-based aid is a tiny part of the financial aid pie and I’m not sure it’s enough, even with the President’s proposed expansion of the Perkins loan program, to make a dramatic difference. Congress could beef up the proposal, perhaps by linking non need-based aid–like unsubsidized Stafford loans—to college costs.
The second main difference from the McKeon proposal is that financial aid eligibility is tied not just to costs, but to value. Although this has yet to be defined, there might be a clue in the President’s second no/low cost proposal—a standardized college “shopping sheet.” This has the potential to largely demystify the “black box” of higher education, helping students make better decisions and nudging institutions to compete for students based on the value. What might a shopping sheet look like? Perhaps something like this mockup model financial aid award letter put together last fall by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and The Department of Education. In addition to containing specific financial aid award information, it also includes a nice color-coded comparison of institutional persistence, graduation, and default rates. I imagine a “shopping sheet” would include these elements plus, as reported in the NYT, earnings information.
Although we don’t yet know all the details, it seems these proposals have the potential to make a real difference for students. In an election year in which 75% of Americans think college is unaffordable and 57% say college is not a good value, it’s hard to imagine how Congress could justify not leveraging existing dollars to rein in costs or to making the costs and benefits of going to college more transparent to students and their families. I’m looking forward to hearing more from the President and Congress about these proposals.
(Updated: Read the President’s remarks here)
(Updated: See a mockup of the scorecard here)