Speaking this morning before the University at Buffalo, President Obama rolled out a thoughtful plan to tame the rising cost of college that, should it ever reach Congress, will likely end up deader than the dead white men on a freshman English syllabus.
And that's a pity.
For decades now, Washington has tried to improve access to higher education by acting as a fount of no-strings-attached cash for college students, freely handing out cheap loans and grants to help them cover the rising price of a degree. The results have been, well, less than stellar. Tuition has kept marching up. Americans are now shouldering more than $1 trillion in student debt. Millions have defaulted on their education loans. And the free-flow of government money has helped give birth to an essentially predatory for-profit college industry, along with some less than savory nonprofit institutions.
Today, the president said: No more. True to form, the White House's plan is sort of a grab-bag of wonky policy initiatives. But the heart of it is a simple, powerful, and long overdue idea that the Obama first began arguing for last summer: that Washington should fund the colleges that get the best results while keeping tuition reasonable. By 2015, the Department of Education would begin grading institutions based on factors like average price, student debt loads, graduation rates, employment, and the number of low-income students enrolled. Then, starting in 2018, the government would start directing federal aid to schools with the highest grades compared to their peer institutions. As colleges try to shape up to meet Washington's standards and attract students, tuition prices should theoretically drop, or at least level off.