Predictably, the president’s proposal yesterday to develop measurements of college cost effectiveness, and then to link federal subsidies to performance, aroused immediate opposition from some college administrators and their lobbyists, and from congressional Republicans (per this report from AP’s Julie Pace):

Republicans on Capitol Hill weighed in quickly with criticism. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, cast the proposal as government overreach and suggested a state-by-state approach would be preferable.

“Washington needs to be careful about taking a good idea for one state and forcing all 6,000 institutions of higher education to do the exact same thing, turning Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities,” Alexander said.

I don’t know what it is about college costs that’s supposed to vary so much state-by-state, and the units of measurement are pretty much the same, but whatever: reflexive GOP opposition to anything Obama proposes is a given.

But as several observers pointed out yesterday, while linking student and college aid to performance measurements will require congressional approval, the task of creating those measurements and publicizing them is well within the current powers of the Department of Education.

Here’s Ezra Klein noted:

The easy thing to do here is dismiss the whole effort because the Obama administration can’t get anything through the divided Congress. That’s more or less the approach NBC’s First Read took. “Few believe his push will make any difference to the gridlock in Washington,” they wrote. “Here was Tuesday’s Buffalo News headline ahead of the president’s trip: ‘Obama’s road trip unlikely to change D.C. stalemate.’ ”

What’s interesting about this plan, though, is that only half of it needs congressional approval — and it’s the half that comes later, and that can be done quicker. The Obama administration doesn’t need congressional approval to build the performance measures. That’s something the Department of Education can do on its own.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times refers to the sheer power of information as Obama’s “back-up plan:”

Even if Mr. Obama (or his successor, given the plan’s long timeline) cannot persuade Congress to change the rules for awarding federal aid by 2018, his administration can still collect and publish the data on college outcomes.

Mr. Obama’s first choice is that this data – on tuition, graduation and retention rates, student makeup and graduates’ earnings – help determine how much federal money the colleges receive. The backup plan is that parents and students will be able to use the data to decide where to enroll and, in the process, reward top-performing colleges and punish laggards. The White House plans to publish ratings based on this data by 2015….

Much of the data the administration plans to use in its ratings is public. Mr. Obama’s Education Department already publishes a “college scorecard” with a wealth of information. The Education Department also has a search engine called the College Navigator. Private groups, like Washington Monthly, publish data on graduation rates and other measures. (The magazine’s latest version is scheduled for release next week.)

(To be more precise, the 2013 College Guide will be published on Monday. But the rankings closest to what Obama is proposing that the Department of Education put together, the “bang-for-the-buck” rankings, were released yesterday.)

The higher ed establishment and Republican opponents won’t be able to do much to stop the collection and dissemination of information, so we’ll likely see them first try to head off the linkage of this data to actual dollars, and then trash the data in every way they can.

UPDATE: If you are looking for a very comprehensive analysis of Obama’s college cost proposals, including those I have not emphasized here like a higher ed “Race to the Top” initiative, check out Dylan Matthews’ mammoth post at WonkBlog.

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.