Obama pushes for affordability-based college ranking

The plan could tie federal financial aid to college rankings by 2018.

Kia Farhang

President Barack Obama on Thursday announced a plan to make college more affordable by ranking schools on factors like graduate earnings and student loan debt and rewarding students who attend schools with high scores.

Expected to be implemented in time for the 2015-16 academic year, Obama’s plan would expand on the federal government’s current College Scorecard system, which launched in February and ranks schools on five criteria including cost and graduation rate.

Obama plans to push for legislation that would give students attending high-ranking colleges more federal aid starting in 2018, according to a White House press release.

“We’ve got a crisis in terms of college affordability and debt,” the president said in a speech to New York college students on Thursday. “The system’s current trajectory is not sustainable.”

About a fourth of all University of Minnesota undergraduate students received federal PELL grants last year, according to University data. One in five received other federal financial aid.

Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, said in a statement released Thursday that Obama’s plan is consistent with University goals.

Obama’s plan also includes ranking schools based on accessibility for low-income students. McMaster said the University has created scholarship programs for students who are above the PELL grant cutoff but still show financial need.

He said the University is also planning to continue integrating technology into the classroom through programs like free massive open online courses, which the White House press release said could help lower the cost of higher education.

But, McMaster said, the University wants to further understand Obama’s plan.

“We look forward to working with the administration and our congressional delegation to develop this proposal further,” McMaster said.

Currently, public colleges and universities in Minnesota and most other states receive state funding based on total enrollment.

The president has requested that Congress approve a $1 billion initiative aimed at changing that model by pushing states to award funding to colleges based instead on graduation rates and other criteria. Similar programs are already in place in Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee.

Ohio State Rep. Andrew Brenner, Vice Chair of the Ohio House of Representatives’ Education Committee, said the traditional system didn’t work in his state.

“We were sick of failing schools,” he said. “Everybody recognized we needed to do this.”

Ohio’s governor worked with university officials to draft the new plan, which took effect last month, Brenner said.

The University currently ranks in the middle of its peer institutions for net cost and median student borrowing, according to the College Scorecard.

Only 2.5 percent of University graduates defaulted on their student loans between 2008 and 2011, according to the Scorecard, compared to a national average of 13.4 percent of graduates.

Congress reached a bipartisan deal in early August tying federal student loan interest rates to the financial market, with a cap of 8.25 percent. Obama signed it into law Aug. 9.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who sponsored the House bill, released a statement Thursday in opposition of Obama’s plan.

“While I am pleased the president’s new plan recognizes the importance of promoting innovation and competition in higher education,” he said, “I remain concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage…”

According to the Associated Press, Obama will travel from New York to Pennsylvania Friday to promote the plan at two additional schools.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.