Editorial: Federal higher education proposals are hit and miss

By The Beacon | September 19, 2013 12:59am

Daily updates from the Syria crisis have largely turned the U.S.’s attention away from the U.S. for the last couple of weeks (and rightly so). But important things are happening at home, too. Just before the crisis overseas began, President Obama laid out a set of proposals for U.S. higher education reform that could change the way Americans pay for college.

Obama’s plan aims to lower the cost of higher education, especially for middle-class students, and for the most part, it is good for students across the country. But because it misunderstands the value of education, the plan is problematic, especially for liberal arts schools like UP.

The plan succeeds where it most directly aids students - helping pay for college and easing the impact of student loans. Under the proposal, government investment in Pell Grants would double (a growth already underway). The plan also increases the amount of tax credits middle-income families can get for higher education.

The proposal’s new take on student loan debt is also positive, assuring that no graduate will have to pay more than 10 percent of his or her monthly income for loans. It would also cancel student loan debt after 20 years, making sure college debt isn’t a lifelong burden.

But Obama’s plan for reducing prices of tuition is misguided.

On the surface, the Race to the Top: College Affordability and Completion challenge sounds good. It provides incentive for keeping tuition down by giving more aid to schools and states that keep costs low while producing more - and more successful - graduates. This is a necessary step to take, now that the assumption at all universities is a yearly tuition increase.

The problem with the plan is that colleges and universities receive aid according to a rating system that places the wrong type of value on education. One of the criteria for the rating is the average salary of graduates, so a school with wealthier alumni receives more federal aid.

This value placed on monetary success misses the point of education. It reinforces the idea that a college degree is merely a stepping stone to more money, not a path to a better, more informed life. The plan places little value on liberal arts degrees, assuming that because they don’t lead to high-paying jobs, they aren’t valuable to society at large.

Obama’s proposal, therefore, does not bode well for UP, where some of the most popular majors - nursing, biology, Spanish - lead to lower-paying jobs for recent graduates than, say, engineering. If the plan goes forward in its current state, UP will likely not receive as much aid as schools focused on engineering and computer science degrees.

Of course, the average salary of graduates is only one dimension to the proposed rating system. Schools will also be rewarded for providing more scholarships for students, something UP does increasingly well as the RISE campaign helps reduce student costs.

Still, it is discouraging to see the federal government devalue the liberal arts education that we at UP so firmly believe in. If the government is going to reform the way we pay for higher education, it should stop thinking of education as something that can be measured by a yearly salary.