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Can Obama Deliver On His College Affordability Promises?

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NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. -- When Joe Biden traveled here last week with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to host a town hall on college affordability, groups of students lined the palm-shaded streets, cheering as the motorcade blew by. On his way out of Fletcher High School, Biden even stopped for a group of effusive fourth graders. But Abby Pugh, a junior at Fletcher, had more questions than unmitigated enthusiasm for the vice president.

An aspiring journalist, Pugh hopes to get scholarships to alleviate the financial burden of her education. If she fails to secure them, she says, "I've thought about the debt, but I try not to."

Pugh joined her fellow students in cheering Obama's second in command. "It's exciting that he came here to our little beach school," she said. "But I'm not sure what, exactly, he can do for us."

Pugh's concerns over the federal government's ability to leverage systemic change in college affordability echo broader questions about the Obama administration's higher education policy. Obama has pushed to make school more accessible by attempting to control costs and raise graduation rates.

"In the midst of this recession, there was no abating of what happened for the last 20 years: a constant increase in college tuition cost well in excess of inflation," Biden told HuffPost. "There's more parents tonight who are going to go to bed staring at the ceiling literally wondering about, whether your mother is going to have to tell you ... 'you can't go back next semester, we don't have the money.'"

This push has become a major component of Obama's 2012 campaign, which makes the plight of the (often-educated) middle class a central part of its messaging. But the precise ramifications for students in need have yet to be determined.

Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy, did not express much optimism at the chance for substantive change.

"They don't have much leverage, because almost all the money they give goes through students," said Jennings, formerly a longtime Democratic education congressional staffer. "It's a political issue for the middle class and the administration feels they have to address it somehow. They can't put conditions on federal money that goes through students."

"The only direct way for the federal government to address tuition increases would be to limit student choices by making some institutions ineligible," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education and a high-profile lobbyist.

The administration has so far been cagey about specifying its plans regarding college affordability and productivity, such as graduation rates, beyond tweaks to student loan policy. But officials have alluded to Secreatary Duncan's 2012 budget proposals on college affordability, which will appear in the president's upcoming budget.

These proposals mirror what the administration accomplished in K-12 education, incentivizing proposed reforms through funds in the Race to the Top competition. One budget proposal would create a new, $123 million "First in the World" competition, in which states compete for funding based on innovative cost-cutting and improving student preparedness and graduation rates. A $1.25-billion College Completion Incentive Grant would award competing states that set graduation goals, narrow achievement gaps and provide performance-based funding.

"We want to incentivize, to learn from those systems that have made some of these changes," Biden told HuffPost. "What we're putting together is a proposal in this upcoming budget that incentivizes states and universities to maintain control of the escalating costs that they have."

But several crucial differences exist between the administration's success in spurring change at the K-12 level and their attempts to repeat it for higher education.

The political circumstances were different: Race to the Top was a small pocket of 2009 stimulus act funding, and passed Congress partly because of the good will associated with the inauguration of a new president. Now, Congress is often gridlocked in its partisanship; there's no 2011 analogue to the stimulus act; and Obama is already two years into his tenure.

"Their chances of getting more money now is about zero," Jennings said. "When the election approaches, Congress freezes up and can't do anything because of political battles coming ahead."

Besides, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education, the administration simply doled out the higher education portion of the stimulus package. "There was no requirement for reform," he said.

Biden acknowledges that "what we can do is make the case to the public." Ultimately, with Congress's cooperation, he said, "we can leverage [costs] to stay within the rate of inflation."

President of the Lumina Foundation Jamie Merisotis, who attended a meeting of college presidents hosted by Obama last Monday, is optimistic. "Some combination between tough love and incentives will emerge in the next year to try to bring down the price and the cost," he said.

Merisotis also thinks the congressional gridlock might lift on this issue: when he testified at a recent subcommittee hearing on college costs, he said he'd never before "seen such a bipartisan agreement that something needs to be done."

Even if the administration's proposed changes can be pushed through, they might not be sufficient.

"The biggest need is a major overhaul of the financial aid system and the other financing the federal government does," said Charles Miller, who chaired the University of Texas's Board of Regents. "If you tinker with a complex system that's badly designed to begin with, you can make some improvements but that's not enough to change a really bad system." Miller also led former education secretary Margaret Spellings' higher-education commission.

According to Miller, the current financing structure serves institutions more than it serves students: Detailed financial aid forms provide unnecessary information that allows universities to choose students based on how much they can pay. Federal money, he said, ends up spent on merit-based aid, which "is not for poor kids."

Spellings similarly said that the Obama administration's proposals only nip at the margins of larger systemic problems.

"No, I don't think they go far enough," Spellings said. "There's nothing in their funding proposals that suggests game-changing proposals in higher education."

Beyond that, the higher education lobby is notoriously well-funded. For example, the administration's gainful employment regulations for for-profit colleges were heavily watered down by special interests.

"Higher education often is a field full of special interests that will lobby hard to prevent being held accountable," said David Halperin, director of Campus Progress. "I do think it will be a challenge but I'm pleased the administration has said it's an important goal. ... But there's more political juice on the side of inertia."

Hartle, the lobbyist, rebutted, "I think it's nice to say there's a simple solution and it's one group of people who are in the way, but I don't think there's any accuracy to that."

Obama's plans echo past attempts to control rising college cost. The commission convened by Spellings looked at deficiencies within the higher-education system, leading to the release of a 2006 report.

The report's prescriptions read somewhat like Obama's in calling for "new incentives [to be] put in place to improve the measurement and management of costs and institutional accountability."

The report also faced enormous pushback from lobbyists. "The academy argued vociferously that we were wrong about stuff, but we weren't," Miller said. "We were making the effort in the Bush administration but there wasn't the political will."

Five years later, little has fundamentally changed, aside from Pell Grant expansions and FAFSA tweaks. But at the end of the day, advocates are happy cost is now prominent in the bully pulpit. Regardless of what the federal government can and can't do on the policy side to make college easier for students to attend, some say using public forum to pressure colleges to contain costs is a good thing.

But beyond how the political process on higher education policy unfolds, ultimately, Halperin said, "We do have a crisis."

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