Buried in the details of the president’s college affordability initiative is a small but very important idea. Here’s how WaPo’s Dylan Matthews explains it based on a White House fact sheet:

“The President requested $1 billion in Race to the Top funding to spur state higher education reforms and reshape the federal-state partnership by ensuring that states maintain funding for public higher education,” the fact sheet explains. “The Race to the Top competition will have a special focus on promoting paying for value as opposed to enrollment or just seat time….”

Part of the administration’s rationale for the plan is that it helps states avoid the kind of budget cuts that have been increasing public college tuition. “About three quarters of college students attend a community college or public university, and declining state funding has been the biggest reason for rising tuition at public institutions,” as the fact sheet explains.

So it seems the new “Race to the Top” funding is designed not only to stimulate smart state practices in funding colleges, but also to reward states that maintain overall college funding levels.

That’s a very good and important objective. As regular readers of Daniel Luzer’s posts at College Guide know, reduced state appropriations for higher education are far and away the most critical factor contributing to the current tuition cost spiral. It’s not immediately clear that a $1 billion federal fund will supply sufficient leverage to make a difference in this area, and of course, it’s even less clear Congress can be convinced to supply the money at a time when Republicans are demanding cuts in non-defense discretionary spending. But it’s the right idea, and it’s also one where the administration can actually count on support from the higher ed lobby.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.