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Obama’s higher ed plan — a power grab, not a shake-up

President Obama has announced a plan that he claims will make “college more affordable, tackle rising costs, and improve value for students and their families.” The key elements of his plan are (1) a federal college-rating system that will evaluate colleges on measures such as graduation rates, the number of low-income students served (i.e., the percentage of Pell Grant recipients), graduate earnings, and affordability and (2) the tying of federal student aid to this federal rating system by giving larger Pell Grants and lower student-loan interest rates to students who enroll in colleges that fare well on the federal scorecard.

I agree with Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation that Obama’s plan is a bad idea. The federal rating system is unnecessary. Plenty of private outfits — most famously, U.S. News and World Report — rate colleges on a broad array of criteria. Relevant information about colleges is easy to come by, and from sources more trustworthy than ideologically-driven federal bureaucrats.

While the first elements of Obama’s plan is merely unnecessary, the second element — tying federal assistance to the federal rating system — strikes me as pernicious. First, I doubt the federal government’s ability to rate colleges with sufficient accuracy to justify attaching monetary consequences to its ratings.

Second, Obama’s plan will increase the federal government’s ability to coerce colleges into embracing even more fully a left-wing agenda — e.g., discriminating against whites in admissions and hiring, unfairly disciplining male students based on flimsy allegations of sexual harassment, and so forth.

Third, even if the federal government were able to come up with a reasonable and unbiased rating system, it would still have no business discriminating financially against the families of students who decide to attend colleges they (and the families) believe are better suited to their particular purposes.

Fourth, I agree with Rep. John Kline who says “I remain concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage — and even lead to federal price controls.”

Finally, I see little reason to believe that Obama’s plan would meet its alleged purpose of reining in college costs. Obama is not talking about reducing federal subsidies to colleges and universities as a whole; he’s talking, it appears, about redistributing them. Thus, the impact of his proposal on costs would probably be marginal, at best.

Higher education in the U.S. could use a shake-up. But Obama isn’t proposing one; he’s calling instead for a federal power grab. It is not the answer.

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