Obama’s College Cost Problem

President Obama has been making headlines lately with his complaints about the cost of college.

He says he understands how families are struggling and how recent graduates face gigantic student loans. His discussion about college costs is compelling. So much so that even Mitt Romney was forced to support the Obama administration’s position on interest rates on students loans (now they’re both saying no to rate increases).

The trouble is that the president of the United States doesn’t really have any power over college costs. According to an article by Fawn Johnson in the National Journal:

President Obama is adding to a tried and true backyard-barbecue conversation that is sure to win points with the regular guy: He is complaining about the cost of college. And just like the regular guy grilling hot dogs and burgers, there is very little he can do about it. At best, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on Friday, the administration can “move some resources potentially more toward those universities that are doing things right” in lowering tuition. What exactly those things are remains a mystery.

Never mind all that. The point is to repeat in as many ways as possible that the administration is on the case when it comes to college education. Obama spent an unusual amount of time talking about higher education in his State of the Union address and issuing veiled threats (that have been repeated by Duncan) that uncooperative colleges will face unnamed consequences if they don’t work with the White House to lower costs.

Those consequences might have something to do with Pell grants or Stafford loans, the few places where the federal government can actually impact higher education policy, but the policy direction is at this point a mystery. But the Obama administration keeps pushing the issue anyway. As Johnson writes:

This White House is making a concerted effort to tie education as closely with economic growth as possible—pulling the domestic policy issue out of the isolated ivory tower in which it has resided for decades. It’s a good move, even though the best tools the administration can wield to promote it are rhetorical.

Johnson writes that “the coordination is lacking on an actual solution. Congress and the White House seem to be acting out of sync.” They surely are, but it doesn’t really matter.

About 80 percent of American college students attend public colleges. State support for public colleges and universities has fallen by about 26 percent per full-time student. That’s the real problem here. There’s not much the federal government can do to get state funding back up.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer