08/29/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

Higher Education Reform Could Penalize Students

Colleges and universities have long been concerned with the issues of controlling cost and providing the neediest students with access to a good education, and we welcome President Obama's interest in providing solutions. Unfortunately, his proposed reforms could hurt the very people he wants to help.

Tying federal aid to general performance metrics, as the president proposes, would penalize many students and their families. It is a strategy that over time would reduce aid to the tier of colleges that most caters to first generation students and thus students of high need.

As it is, those who attend these schools often don't receive enough financial aid from state, federal and institutional sources to remain in school. They stop attending classes so they can work, thus lowering the college's graduation rate.

Because the graduation rate is a metric the government would use to grant financial aid, the colleges could receive less aid and even be threatened with closure.

President Obama also proposes to tie aid to graduate outcomes, including the salaries earned by graduates. But not every college produces investment bankers. Does the president really want to penalize schools that produce the teachers, social workers and nurses who are essential to our common good, but who do not earn fabulous salaries?

The college experience should not be viewed as one size fits all. The transfer of knowledge through competency-based learning, rather than the course-credit model, may be appropriate for some adult learners. Others also benefit from the flexibility and convenience of online classes.

Those models, however, are not what most families of undergraduates prefer. They are certainly not suited for colleges that focus on the three most important developmental elements of the collegiate experience: intellectual, social and spiritual growth. Many 18-to-22-year-olds grow up at college, transforming into responsible adults through their experiences within and outside the classroom.

Just walk around a traditional, four-year liberal arts college campus, and you will see that transformation at work, with students developing into leaders and manifesting a moral compass.

Educating the whole person requires time, talent and resources. It is not an inexpensive endeavor. The average price of an automobile has doubled since 1983. The costs that colleges face have also multiplied: faculty and staff salaries, health care costs for employees, heating, cooling and lighting of buildings, and campus maintenance and improvements.

This reality has created a problem that deeply concerns leaders in higher education. Private colleges have worked hard to contain the net cost of an education in recent years. At the college I lead as president, Saint Anselm College, our families paid annual increases of only 1 percent, on average, in each of the last five years. That is because we have increased financial aid substantially.

College tuition remains an investment that pays dividends throughout a graduate's life. He or she will earn in a lifetime about $1 million more than peers without a degree, based on 2012 median wages. An investment that beneficial deserves greater support.

We have been blessed at Saint Anselm College to host presidential debates for New Hampshire's first in the nation primary. President Obama visited our campus as a candidate participating in those debates, and met our students, faculty and staff. A graduate himself of outstanding institutions, Columbia and Harvard universities, he witnessed first hand the value we at Saint Anselm provide to our students at a reasonable cost (we offer about 50 percent of tuition costs with our own financial aid to students), a minimal debt default rate (1.3 percent versus the national average of 13.4 percent) and outstanding outcomes (98 percent of our graduates are employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation).

As parents of a teenager, the Obamas will soon embark on the college search process. I encourage them to come back to visit our beautiful campus. After all, his last visit here helped him get his current job.