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Official: White House Path on College Affordability Not Fully Mapped Out

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The White House was purposefully vague on the college affordability plan that it announced last week because the administration wants the higher education community to help shape the plan, a White House official told a group of higher education leaders meeting in Washington on Tuesday. 


“The reason it’s not more detailed is because the more we thought about it, it would be better to outline what the principles are, then engage in a dialogue with the entire higher education community, experts, students and families, and then talk about what would be the right way to relay these principles,” said Zakiya Smith, senior advisor for education at the White House Domestic Policy Council, at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.


“We don’t have all the details and we didn’t come out with a bill that has very specific details laid down from beginning to end,” Smith said. “We thought the best thing to do would be to lay out a blueprint, principles, and get feedback on how to make (those principles) into something more concrete.”


Smith’s remarks came just one week after President Obama announced in his State of the Union address a plan to tie some federal aid to colleges’ and universities’ ability to keep down tuition.


At Tuesday’s talk, Smith offered a few more details on the priorities of the Obama administration’s proposal to make college more affordable.


Besides tying some federal aid to lower tuition rates, those priorities include:


— Providing Good Value. Smith said the plan’s proposed $55 million First in the World Competition is essentially a revamping of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, more commonly known as FIPSE. The aim of the competition is to try new strategies to increase higher education attainment and student outcomes. Smith cited universities that have looked at course redesigns that led to higher completion rates as an example of the kind of innovation that could compete in the First in the World Competition. Smith said less about the proposed $1 billion “Race to the Top” fund for higher education, which would award grants to states that keep tuition low, similar to how the Race to the Top fund at the K-12 level awarded competitive grants to states that implemented K-12 reforms. “It’s always important to leverage state investments in higher education systems” and to curb the rising cost of tuition, Smith said.


— Serving Low-Income Students. Smith said to ensure the American dream is attainable and to reach the Obama administration’s goal to make the United States the most college-educated nation in the world, it was “critical” to make sure that low-income students are getting to and through college. “We don’t want these changes to result in creaming,” Smith said.


— Increasing Transparency Through Improved Disclosures. “Markets work better when people have good information,” Smith said. Recognizing that some colleges and associations have already begun to provide better information on institutional effectiveness, Smith said, “we didn’t want to leave that piece out of the plan.”


Smith said that, if students are able to look at “important indicators” of an institution’s success, hopefully it would lead them to look at additional information, such as that found on the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website.


“We also think if students better understand the net price of college and the return on investment, they’ll be more likely to attend (college) and not be scared away because of the overall sticker price,” she said.


Smith’s talk was warmly received but also prompted questions and critical thoughts from attendees during a brief question-and-answer period.


Dr. Bernie Fryshman, a physics professor at the New York Institute of Technology, warned that pressure to keep down tuition “could have a very serious deleterious effect on improving outcomes, particularly for low-income students.”


“Sometimes pressure on tuition results in large classes; it results in an increased number of adjuncts; it results in pressure to take online courses,” Fryshman said. “These are all things that are not helpful to students who need help.


“What happens is the tuition might be kept low and at the same time students don’t do as well as they could. The country has to know that, if it is interested in students doing well, it’s got to be prepared to spend the money. It doesn’t happen by magic.


“Students need hand-holding, time in the halls that full-time, tenured members of faculty can offer and adjuncts can’t.”


Patricia McGuire, president at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., noted how her college has spent $1 million to revamp its first year programming to increase student success in the first year.


She said it’s illogical to ask colleges to reduce costs and simultaneously increase the number of low-income students who persist because reforms cost money.


“We have to come to a happy middle on the price tag involved,” McGuire said.


While some attendees raised questions about institutions’ ability to keep college costs down, two college presidents who shared the dais with Smith shared examples of measures they’ve already taken to control costs.


Lanny Hall, president of Hardin-Simmons University, or HSU, in Abilene, Texas, said his college has implemented a Tuition Guarantee Program that keeps tuition flat for entering students as long as they are enrolled full-time for consecutive semesters.


“One of the great fears of families in higher education is fear of the unknown, especially with first-generation college students,” Hall said in explaining the program’s rationale. “Even if they can handle the academic challenge, they may not be able to handle the rising costs.”


Hall said the program was a risk “but that the risk has paid off.”


Huntington University President G. Blair Dowden spoke of a Loan Repayment Assistance Program his university implemented to make student loan payments for students who make less than $20,000 a year after graduation and partial payments for those who make less than $36,000 a year. Retention rates have increased as a result, he said.


“Students and parents alike expressed great appreciation for the peace of mind that it provides,” Dowden said.

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