U divided on Obama proposal

The plan would tie federal funding to newly developed college rankings.

by Roy Aker

President Barack Obama’s recent proposal for the future of higher education has drawn mixed reviews nationally and at the University of Minnesota.

While some in the University community support the proposed reliance on newly developed rankings for allocating federal funding to colleges and universities, others are at odds with the plan.

Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, said the proposal wouldn’t be problematic for the University if it takes effect.

“The University thinks the plan is a good one, in that it’s going to hold institutions more accountable for performance,” he said.

Obama’s plan, announced Aug. 22, is expected to be in place for the 2015-16 academic year. It would expand on the federal government’s College Scorecard, which was created in February and ranks schools on criteria like graduation rate and students’ median borrowing.

The University scores well on the College Scorecard, which could benefit the school because Obama’s plan would consider similar criteria when allocating aid.

But some conservatives, including U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn, have voiced criticism of the president’s plan.

Kline said in an Aug. 22 statement that he was “concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage — and even lead to federal price controls.”

Obama wants his plan incorporated into the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which will be debated in Congress before it expires Jan. 1, 2014.

Drew Christensen, co-chair of the University’s College Republicans, said it’s good that Obama is encouraging competition in higher education, but added that the plan could lead to excessive government involvement.

“The government doesn’t necessarily run programs most efficiently, so I’m not sure increased federal involvement in higher education is a good thing,” he said.

Another aspect of Obama’s proposal would reward colleges that enroll and graduate more low- and middle-income students.

Leah Chaney, president of the University student group Students for Education Reform-Minnesota, said she supports the plan because it could help students struggling to pay for school.

“The initiative could help to get more funding to provide for the students who need it the most,” she said.

Chaney said that because federal funding would be tied to each school’s ranking, the University would have an incentive to increase graduation rates and enroll more low-income students.

Colleges could also receive a bonus if they graduate more students who use federally backed Pell grants, which are given to low-income undergraduates.

Over the last six years, the University has increased the percentage of its students who are eligible for Pell grants, according to a University statement on Obama’s plan.

For students who have family incomes too high to qualify for Pell grants, McMaster said, the University is developing scholarship programs to make it easier for them to afford college.

The one aspect of the plan McMaster expressed concern over was analysis of student data. Part of Obama’s plan calls for information regarding average earnings of students after college. But McMaster said this data would be hard to obtain for any school, including the University.

“We at the University of Minnesota struggle to get detailed data on our graduates, where they are and how much they’re making after graduation,” he said.

Although the University’s Carlson School of Management keeps good tabs on its graduates’ earnings, McMaster said, colleges whose graduates work in more diverse areas often have a more difficult time acquiring information on graduates.

There’s a lot of work to be done if Congress chooses to implement the president’s plan, McMaster said, but he added that he’s confident the federal government is capable of executing it.

“There could be an extremely positive end result from the federal government looking into this and getting serious about this project,” he said.