As part of the second-term agenda he released last Tuesday, President Barack Obama has stated that he will cut the college tuition increases in half over the next 10 years. However, the exceedingly vague ‘plan’ doesn’t explain how the President would accomplish this feat.
At the Democratic National Convention last month the President made a similar promise without the 10 year timetable. When asked by reporters for details on how the President and his administration would achieve this feat, the Obama campaign pointed to a three-sentence Race to the Top for colleges proposal the President’s team sent out in an education reform press release in January.
The proposal was also as vague as you’d expect a three sentence proposal in a press release to be, merely stating that the Department of Education would use $1 billion in funding to create a program that would incentivize states to keep tuition low by having them compete against each other for additional federal funding. It does not explain where the funding would come from, however, or include projections of how effective the plan would be at accomplishing the President’s goal.
The Department of Education’s 2013 budget request, released last February, gives slightly more insight into how the Race to the Top: College Affordability and Completion program would work. According DOE’s budget justification worksheet, the money would be given to just two to five states with high-performing schools based on several criterion including affordability and a high percentage of students completing their degrees.
Of the original $1 billion, $10 million would go toward paying for the additional bureaucracy the program would create, according to DOE. But once again, it does not say where it expects the $1 billion to come from in the first place, leaving one to only assume that future legislation on this issue would have appropriate the money by raising taxes, cutting other government programs or adding to the U.S.’ 16 trillion in debt.
But that additional money has to come from somewhere, and that much is unclear.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you where they think they’re going to get it,” Neal McCluskey, associate director of The CATO Institute’s Center for Education Freedom, said with a chuckle.
If college tuition increases are cut in half over the next ten years, as the Obama administration has promised, it will not be the result of government intervention, however, a Heritage Foundation education expert says.
“It will have nothing to do with the federal government and it will be harder to do if we keep increasing Pell Grants and if we keep increasing federal subsidies,” said Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman Fellow in Education at Heritage. Referencing the proliferation of online courses, she added, “I think the way college costs will be [cut] is by the sort of innovative entrepreneurs that are entering the market.”
Burke said Obama’s plan for cutting tuition increases is “one that I think won’t ultimately lead to a reduction in tuition and fees because it is effectively a vision of increasing government spending on higher ed, which we know historically has done nothing to reduce college costs, and in fact, if anything, has exacerbated college costs.”
In Obama’s new “plan for America’s future” he lists three ways that he will make college more affordable: “continuing tax credits for the middle-class to help them pay for tuition” (which is not new and is already in effect), “doubling the amount of work-study jobs available to college students” (which he also doesn’t go into greater detail on) and “designing incentive programs to reward schools for lowering or maintaining costs” (Race to the Top for colleges).
Those are literally the only details said ‘plan’ includes and once again does not explain how the President will cut tuition rates.
Cutting federal subsidies to universities seems to be the real solution to forcing colleges to make cuts and bring their prices down as a result. However, this is an avenue the Obama administration is refusing to consider.
“It’s possible to cut [tuition growth] in half,” CATO’s McCluskey said, but “I don’t think it’s as all likely because colleges would scream bloody murder because they act like they need every single dollar.”
McCluskey said students also stand in the way of real reform because “anytime you propose reducing aid — which would be I think really the key to cutting tuition — they get very upset because they think they’re going to lose aid, and prices — they don’t even think about prices going down,” he said.
Any other not already mentioned avenues would be unconstitutional, McCluskey pointed out. The President does not have the power to bypass Congress or the states to force states to lower their rates.
Burke predicted that the problem will resolve itself without government intervention, though, because the current bubble surrounding higher education will burst soon, dramatically lowering the cost of college.
“College costs are higher than they’ve ever been, but they’re higher than they’ve ever been at a time in history when the cost of basic knowledge in cheaper than at any other point,” the Heritage fellow said. “I mean, anything you want to learn, you can go online and learn. And you can go online and learn it from some of the best professors at some of the best institutions in the world — for free.”
Kelsey Osterman heavily contributed to this report.