If the Obama administration has trotted out one trusty example to symbolize the plight of the middle class, it's college graduates drowning in debt. On Friday, President Barack Obama again used that imagery in unveiling the specifics of systemic proposals to improve college affordability before a University of Michigan audience.
The Michigan speech -- and related materials circulated by the White House -- added policy meat to proposals hinted at in Tuesday's State of the Union address, in which Obama placed the promise of an accessible college education within his larger message of economic mobility and fairness. Friday's plan was a culmination of many ideas that have percolated in government budgets and executive officials' remarks over the last year.
The latest proposals have their merits. Unfortunately, they do little for those who have already graduated. And skeptics will likely see the plan as an election-year ploy unlikely to pass in this partisan clime.
Obama's new plan includes a new $1 billion Race to the Top competition, which would reward states that keep down college tuition and align exit and entrance standards between K-12 and post-secondary education; a doubling of work-study jobs; a college disclosures list that includes net costs, graduation rates and employment information; and a $55 million "first in the world" competition to reward colleges for efficiency.
On Friday, Obama also proposed increasing Perkins loans from $1 billion to $8 billion and overhauling the way such campus-based student aid -- Perkins loans, work-study jobs and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants -- is distributed. Under the new guidelines, universities that held the line on net tuition would receive more money for student aid than those that didn't. Focusing on Perkins loans sidesteps a major limit on the federal government's policy leverage in higher education: Pell grants, which constitute the largest federal aid program, go straight to students, so conditioning that aid doesn't create direct incentives for universities. But even if total Perkins loans are increased to Obama's desired levels, those loans and other campus-based aid still constitute less than 2 percent of federal help for students.
"We are putting colleges on notice -- you can't keep, you can't assume that you'll just jack up tuition every single year," Obama said Friday. "If you can't stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down. We should push colleges to do better. We should hold them accountable if they don't."
If the State of the Union address represented Obama's pivot into campaign mode, the Michigan speech previewed Obama 2012's wooing of the youth vote, a key constituent. As the administration has noted repeatedly in speeches and town hall meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, debt for college graduates is crippling. The estimated $1 trillion owed on student loans exceeds credit card debt, leaving 2010 graduates with an average debt of more than $25,000.
But those who might benefit from Obama's proposals are only a small percentage of young voters. While his plans may help future students, they do little to aid the legions of graduates struggling to make it now.
Moreover, while rolling out a new education plan this year might be electorally smart, it has a serious legislative drawback: Congressional Republicans' good will toward the president is at record lows, which might prevent the proposed help from ever reaching students. Republicans have expressed interest in making college more affordable, with representatives like Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) offering similar proposals in the past. House Republicans have also signaled their desire to deny Obama any legislative wins in an election year.
Still, feedback from Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House education committee, was uncharacteristically positive. "The president has proposed a number of interesting ideas that deserve a careful review," Kline said.
The plan received less love from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. secretary of education. "Within the same paragraph of his State of the Union address, the president first promised to increase student aid, and then threatened to reduce it, saying that if tuition goes up, taxpayer funding will go down," Alexander said. "But federal taxpayer funding for colleges and universities is almost all through grants and loans that go to about 20 million students, so his threat to reduce federal spending for colleges is really a threat to cut federal aid to students."
Debate over Obama's proposals may already have a time slot in the Democratic Senate. This week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and the Workforce Committee, helmed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), announced an early February hearing on college affordability. Though Harkin has yet to specify which policies the hearing will consider, he said Friday, "I look forward to reviewing the President's proposal in the coming weeks and working with my colleagues to ensure that a college education remains within reach for all Americans, regardless of their background."