By Michael D. Shear
WASHINGTON — President Obama will offer a series of proposals this week aimed at making college more affordable by reshaping the way Americans pay for higher education, he said in an email to supporters on Tuesday.
In the message, Obama promised to take action to confront the financial challenges facing an increasing number of students and their families. The average tuition at four-year colleges has tripled over the past three decades, and students who take out loans are left, on average, with $26,000 in debt, he said.
“To create a better bargain for the middle class, we have to fundamentally rethink about how higher education is paid for in this country,” Obama said. “We’ve got to shake up the current system.”
The president did not reveal his proposals in the email, and aides at the White House declined to provide details before Obama embarks this week on a two-day bus tour through upstate New York and Pennsylvania. They said the president would talk about his plans in a series of speeches and town hall-style meetings at universities.
“The proposals that the president is going to lay out are not going to be popular with everybody, but they are going to be in the best interests of middle-class families,” said Josh Earnest, an Obama spokesman. “The president has some ideas about how we can better align federal assistance with a commitment on behalf of colleges to keep costs low for students.”
Aides pointed to proposals that Obama made about college affordability in his 2012 State of the Union address. In that speech and in others since then, he has called for legislation to shift aid away from colleges that fail to keep costs down and to provide an online “scorecard” with information for college students and their parents about the real costs of education.
But Earnest said that “proposals beyond what the president rolled out” in the State of the Union address would be unveiled during his road trip this week.
“The president believes that what we need to do is we need to fundamentally rethink and reshape the higher education system and we need to find a way to build on innovation,” he said.
Those comments puzzled some experts on higher education. Several said they were hard-pressed to think of fundamental ways that the president could reshape the college financial aid system without the cooperation of Congress, which has been fleeting during his tenure. Student loan rates have been a particular source of political friction.
“It seems very unlikely that he’s going to be able to do anything to change the underlying fundamentals that are driving the costs of college,” said Judy Scott-Clayton, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College at Columbia University. “I’m very curious to see what they will do.”
Sandy Baum, an economist at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said Obama’s influence was limited unless he won cooperation from lawmakers.
“When you think about what the federal government can do, much of that would involve Congress,” she said. “That’s problematic at this point.”
Both economists said the statistics in Obama’s email were somewhat misleading. For most students, the overall price of going to college has increased much more slowly when financial aid is taken into account, they said. And increases in tuition are often driven more by financial problems affecting states than by a lack of cost controls at universities, they added.
“The average student, including those who get nothing, are getting $5,000 to $6,000 in aid,” Scott-Clayton said. “That’s getting close to covering tuition.”
Earnest’s mention of incentives may hint that Obama will expand on his idea to provide more aid for students to attend colleges that hold down tuition. But the economists said it was not clear how that would work.
A small amount of government money that the administration could identify without congressional approval would be unlikely to change college policies, they said. And if large amounts of federal student aid were held back from high-cost colleges, students at those colleges could feel penalized.
“If it’s a small amount, how likely is it to affect anything?” Scott-Clayton said. “If it’s a big amount, then we worry that students will be punished for something that the schools control.”