Here Are 5 Ways To Make College More Affordable, Mr. President

PHOTO: US President Barack Obama signs a student loan bill to keep students interest rates low during a signing ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, August 9, 2013.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama will unveil his plans to make college more affordable during a bus tour of Pennsylvania and New York on Thursday and Friday.

The White House has remained tight-lipped about how exactly the president proposes to rein in soaring college costs and make higher education available to a broader spectrum of students. Obama wrote in an email posted on the White House website Tuesday afternoon that his “plan includes real reforms that would bring lasting change. They won't all be popular with everyone --including some who've made higher education their business -- but it's past time that more of our colleges work better for the students they exist to serve.”

Opening higher education opportunities to more students will be a challenging process. It’s tied to broader social changes like growing income inequality and a struggling middle class. It’s also going to require a hard look at the federal financial aid system, as well as the (lack of) accountability and transparency of private lenders.

Here are some ways the country could reform higher education:

1. Distribute federal aid more smartly. The government doles out billions of dollars in financial aid to schools around the country, but does a poor job tracking how it’s spent. Take for-profit colleges, for instance. The companies that operate them got more than $30 billion in aid during the 2009-10 school year, but the majority of students who enrolled for the 2008-2009 school year left without a degree.

Critics say a whole slew of the schools, many owned by private equity firms and publicly traded companies, snare students with sneaky marketing tactics and do little to provide them an education.

If the government tied aid to graduation or job placement rates, both traditional and nonprofit schools would have to do a better job of actually instructing students to stay afloat. Aid could also be conditional on tuition prices remaining reasonable, meaning if a college’s tuition increases by more than a certain percentage, their funding gets cut. Obama actually mentioned such a plan in his 2012 State of the Union address, so don’t be surprised to hear him mention it again.

2. Distribute college scholarships and grants more smartly, too. While about 39 percent of students from families earning less than $20,000 per year got college grants, so did 38 percent of students from families making more than $100,000. Average grants were higher for wealthier students, too. Some of that has to do with the fact that low-income students are more likely to attend cheaper colleges, so smaller grants may make more of a difference.

But that’s part of the problem. Poor students who are fully capable of succeeding at a rigorous university may feel they have to attend a local two-year school because they can’t afford anything else. If colleges spent less time wooing students whose families can already afford college tuition and more of their limited dollars on poor students, the playing field might even out.

3. Acknowledge up front that college isn’t for everyone. This is not something the administration is likely to endorse, considering the president said during his 2012 State of the Union address that “in today’s global economy, a college education is no longer just a privilege for some, but rather a prerequisite for all.”

But mechanics and electricians can learn their trade in technical schools. Many high schools have cut their once-robust vocational programs and urged all students, regardless of their academic performance or career goals, to aim for college. But why not emphasize both?

Tech training programs tend to be shorter than degree programs, and students graduate with employable skills. If these programs were built up as a first-class choice, more students might avoid taking out crippling debt for a college education they may not want or need.

4. Offer more online classes. Colleges now have the ability to stream courses online. While there are some very real benefits to attending college classes in person, it may be time for more schools to reduce their resistance to online learning. Online classes don’t have physical size limitations, so a university could thriftily allow hundreds or even thousands of people to participate (assuming they have enough faculty to teach large sections).

Online learning gives students the flexibility to work a day job, to help avoid taking out student loans. (There are valid concerns about how to ensure students are actually doing the work themselves, but those concerns aren’t unique to online learning.)

The government could develop a rewards systems for colleges that implement reputable online-degree programs. The Obama administration pushed an online-education plan back in 2009, and it’s something that’s likely to come up again, particularly as technology continues to advance.

5. Give credit where credit is due. Many colleges only offer college credit to incoming students for Advanced Placement work done in high school. Groups like the Center for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) say older students should receive more credit for work experience. Offering credit for testable skills like coding knowledge or accounting would help older students graduate in less time. That means they’d pay less tuition and not have to waste time in courses repeating what they already know.

The CAEL points out that military veterans who learn valuable skills during their service, such as mechanical or engineering knowledge, could benefit heavily. Veterans without degrees often struggle to find employment once they return home, but recognizing that they acquired valuable skills during their time with the military would go a long way.

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