While the White House claims that the president secured a major education reform victory Tuesday by signing into law policy that limits the role of private lenders and increases the funds for Pell Grants, critics contend that it is just an incremental approach. In particular, some education advocates are concerned that skyrocketing tuition costs at higher-education institutions will make any bump in Pell Grants effectively moot.
Asked about these critiques, top aides to the president acknowledged the need for supplemental reforms; though with the jump in grants, they argue, community colleges would be effectively free for many students. But both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and top domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes emphasized in a joint interview with Huffington Post that the ultimate remedy for lowering tuition is to simply make the education system more open and competitive.
"You're correct, some universities are running up tuition increases far above the rate of inflation," Duncan said. "But you see other universities doing some really creative things. You see some universities going to three-year programs, basically taking out of their expenses. You see other universities going to no-frills campuses."
"And so students and parents are very, very smart," he added. "They're sophisticated. They're going to vote with their feet, they're going to go where they can get a great education but getting the good value along with that. And folks that don't contain cost, I think, frankly are going to lose market share, lose competitive advantage."
Though not unrealistic, it's a somewhat rosy idea of how the higher education system works. But the goal for the White House, in this case, seems three-fold: raise standards across the board, so that the distinctions between the quality of education are blurred between institutions; open up the application process so that families and students feel increasingly comfortable shopping between different schools; and convince those schools that it's in their financial interest to keep tuition low and recruit more students.
"We have thousands of great choices out there," said Duncan. "Two years, four years, public, private, you name it, and students are very, very smart, very sophisticated. In places where they're going where tuition costs are rising exponentially and there aren't good graduation rates, would you go there next fall if that was the case? I don't think you would. And I do think good actors are going to see many more students attend, and places where you're not getting good value, where students aren't graduating, I think folks will vote with their feet."
"I can speak to [how] that was my own personal experience," added Barnes. "I had a range of ten colleges or universities to choose from when I went to undergraduate school and, with my parents, we looked at cost, we looked at the programs and I chose an excellent school that was also an excellent value and also knowing that I wanted to go on to graduate school, to law school. So those are the kinds of decisions that I think Arne's talking about that students and their families will be making."