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Administration's College Affordability Ideas Trigger Reaction

When President Obama addressed students at the University of Buffalo on Thursday about college affordability, he described his idea of a new rating system as a way to go beyond lists that focus on college selectivity and facilities.

"What we want to do is rate them on who's offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck," he said.

His speech, which also included proposals to encourage innovation and make repaying student loans more manageable, was billed as a major shake-up for higher education.

(For an overview of Obama's agenda, see yesterday's blog and the White House summary here.)

Creating a new rating system might be the easy part, as much of the data is already being collected and administration officials say it won't require any legislation. But linking those value ratings to the disbursement of federal financial aid would take congressional approval.

Early reaction from Capitol Hill to such a proposal was not "super promising," my college Alyson Klein wrote in her Politics K-12 blog.

Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a statement that new federal Medicaid mandates in the federal health care law are soaking up funds that states would have spent on higher education and forcing state colleges and universities to raise tuition.

"A number of states, including Tennessee, are taking innovative steps to reduce college costs by tying state aid to graduation rates and other measures," Alexander said in a statement. "But 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."

A statement from Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents university and college presidents, said the "devil is in the details" of just how a ranking system would work based on outcome-rated data. She said she is encouraged that the administration has invited the higher education community to provide input. However, Broad said ACE will be "vigilant in working to prevent tying the receipt of aid to metrics," suggesting it could have a profoundly negative impact on the students.

The Institute for College Access and Success welcomed Obama's call to develop measures to reward colleges that prioritize access, affordability, quality, and student success, its statement said. "Students and families need better information about costs and outcomes when making college choices, and we can't afford to continue investing in those schools that overcharge and under-deliver," according to TICAS.

The Washington-based advocacy organization, however, cautioned the the new proposals need to be developed carefully so that the very efforts intended to increase college access and completion for low- and moderate- income students don't have the unintended effect of pushing those students out or to schools where they're unlikely to be served well. The group supports bonuses to schools that serve low-income students well, not to those that graduate them with degrees they cannot use and debts they cannot repay.

Higher education experts from the Center for American Progress supported the administration's efforts. "The president is asking the higher education community to do what they help other sectors do every day — innovate," said CAP's Carmel Martin in a statement. "Many institutions are already finding ways to innovate to improve quality while reducing cost, but more systemic efforts are greatly needed...students and families need to be armed with better information about the costs and outcomes associated with educational opportunities."

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