Obama’s College Cost/Value Initiative: Battle Lines Form

It didn’t get maximum attention from non-specialty political media, who are transfixed by the GOP nomination death match, and who also tend to view every word uttered by Barack Obama as little more than campaign fodder. But the president’s speech on higher ed costs and “value” in Michigan yesterday, which filled out some of his best-received lines in the SOTU address, is already getting some reaction from the people most unlikely to favor it: the higher-ed lobby and congressional Republicans.

At the New York Times, Tamar Lewin summed up the slowly rousing opposition to Obama’s proposals:

“The answer is not going to come from more federal controls on colleges or states, or by telling families to judge the value of an education by the amount young graduates earn in the first few years after they graduate,” said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

He warned of unintended consequences: If colleges are forced to cut corners, educational quality could decline.

In Congress, reaction to the plan seemed to divide along party lines.

“The president is saying that people can’t afford to go to college anymore, and that just simply is not true,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who is chairwoman of the House Higher Education subcommittee. “Tuition is too high at most schools, but it isn’t the job of the federal government to punish those schools. It’s very arbitrary, and the president sounds like a dictator.”

At TNR, Education Sector’s Kevin Carey cut to the chase:

On Tuesday night this past week, alarm bells suddenly began ringing at 1 Dupont Circle, the Washington, DC headquarters of the powerful higher education lobby. The trigger was the surprise ultimatum that President Obama leveled in his State of the Union address. “We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition,” he said. “We’ll run out of money.” States needed to stop slashing college budgets, he noted, but colleges also had work to do. “So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” A White House policy blueprint released the same day was more specific. “The President is proposing to shift some Federal aid away from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down and provide good value.”

Carey went on to note that the new initiative represents a big shift in the administration’s higher ed focus, from abuses associated with for-profit schools to the public and private non-profit sectors, which were a lot happier with the earlier approach.

The presumed beneficiaries of the new departure, students and their parents, will be slower to mobilize. And it’s important to remember that the reaction will vary considerably according to location. Out here in California, where tuition rates for public four-year colleges rose by an average of 21% (and for two-year colleges, 37%) in the last year, amidst widespread alarms about enrollment restrictions, cancelled course offerings, faculty pay cuts and crumbling physical infrastructure, it’s likely the president will find some willing listeners. Elsewhere, he may have to cut through all the noise.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.