Obama Tells Colleges He's Going to Start Ranking Them

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Looking very collegiate in a blue blazer and khakis, President Obama unveiled his new college ratings plan on Thursday morning at the University of Buffalo. The speech kicks off a two-day college tour across New York and Pennsylvania, where Obama will try to ramp up support for the three-point plan. It was move-in day at Buffalo, so Obama thanked the students watching the speech "for taking a few minutes from setting up your futons and mini-fridges."

The speech is one of half a dozen Obama is giving ahead of an expected fight over government funding with Republicans this fall. (Recent speech subjects have been the economy and inequality.) Obama has used his speeches to praise more moderate Republican senators in the hope that they'll pressure House Republicans to compromise. 

Without congressional action, Obama's college rankings system can be posted online. But he can't get rankings tied to funding for those colleges without new legislation from Congress. Here are the three "major" reforms to the federal financial aid system Obama proposed:

  • Colleges need to increase their value. This is the main (and most controversial) point of the plan. Obama is proposing rating universities based on tuition, graduation rates, student debt, and how well students do in the workforce. (Instead of selectivity.) He wants these rankings to be completed by 2015. Then, with help from Congress, he hopes to tie these rankings to federal financial aid by 2018. As he said, "it's time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results."
  • Colleges need to "innovate." Obama mentioned programs at different universities that are helping students graduate in less time, while still ostensibly getting a good education. For example, the Southern New Hampshire University assigns credits based on how quickly students learn material, not how long they sit in class. Thus, if you learn faster, you can finish faster, and ultimately pay less.
  • Students need help managing debt. This part of the plan isn't really new. Obama touted his Pay As You Earn plan, which caps payments on Federal Direct Student Loans at 10 percent of one's monthly income. He wants more students to sign up for this program.  He thinks the "government shouldn't see student loans as a way to make money — it should be a way to help students." The U.S. should "profit off of having the best educated workforce in the world."

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So will it work? Colleges may not like the new ratings system, but it will behoove them to try to "innovate" to get higher rankings. Republicans in Congress may take issue with tying aid to rankings. But a senior White House official told The New York Times, "I think there is bipartisan support for some of these ideas, as we’ve seen in states where the governors have been working on them." Obama also challenged students to commit to graduating "in four." Part of his proposal is to make sure students receiving federal aid complete all their coursework before receiving grants for the next semester. 

Obama ended his speech by saying this will all just take "hard work."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.