At the State University of New York’s Buffalo campus today, President Barack Obama outlined a plan to make colleges more affordable and more accountable.
His proposal includes a new system for rating colleges based on a series of factors, including affordability, graduation rate and the average earnings of graduates.
Today is the latest leg of the president’s economy tour — this time by bus — and the speech today is the first in a series about education.
NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro joins us to explain what’s different about today’s message from the president, as he continues to court young voters.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And this morning President Obama began the latest leg on his national economy tour, this time by bus, hitting the road in Upstate New York to give the first in a series of speeches about education. From the State University of New York's Buffalo campus he laid out his plan to make college more affordable.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Bottom line is higher education cannot be a luxury. It's an economic imperative. Every American family should be able to afford to get it. So - so that's the problem. Now, what are we going to do about it? Today I'm proposing major new reforms that will shake up the current system, create better incentives for colleges to do more with less, and deliver better value for students and their families.
YOUNG: So what are those reforms? And what promise do they hold? NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro joins us now. Ari, welcome to you.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Robin.
YOUNG: So the president laid out three proposals. Tell us more about those.
SHAPIRO: The biggest one involves a new college rating system where the federal government would score colleges based on what the administration describes as their value, their affordability and their access. They don't want to game the system so that the colleges with the highest scores are the ones that successfully get the best students. They want to rate schools on whether they're able to get students that's sort of are struggling, are low income and give them better opportunities. They hope to have the rating system in place by 2015 so that students can choose schools based on those ratings. And then they're hoping that they can get Congress and some states on board with giving government funding to schools based on how they do in those ratings.
YOUNG: I was just going to say, because if you give a school a huge score because it's very cheap, that doesn't necessarily mean it was a good experience.
SHAPIRO: Right. And so they're going to spend the next year or so trying to figure out how best to arrange the sort of scoring process, what goes into this rating system. And then hopefully, as I say, have it in place sort of two years from now.
And then in addition to the rating system, they have sort of an innovation competition where they want schools to compete for federal money based on how they get students through the program most effectively, most cheaply, using technology, graduating students in four years and so on.
And then finally they have some proposals to help students deal with their debt. One involves capping debt at 10 percent of a student's post-graduation income, for example.
YOUNG: So the second part that you just mentioned...
SHAPIRO: I should say capping loan payments, not capping debt.
YOUNG: Which would - would that we could.
SHAPIRO: Would that we could.
YOUNG: But the idea of tracking students, I mean it needs some accountability here.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. It is accountability, which is a lot of what President Obama has done in education more broadly. If you look at sort of the Raise to the Top program, it's sort of highlighting best practices. That's one of the reasons that he - reasons he was in Buffalo today. And he's going to Binghamton, Scranton. These are places with schools that he thinks have done a good job of expanding access to students who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to attend college, and also using technology in innovative ways so that students can take courses less expensively online or get college credit for course work that they do in high school. Other things to sort of speed up the graduation rate because you have more students than ever now graduating in five or six years instead of four, which, of course, makes that much more expensive.
YOUNG: Yeah. It seems like such a huge challenge, bringing down the cost of college. We've done many stories here about how colleges have just exploded on, for instance, the administrative, you know, so many costs that they didn't have 25 years ago. How, you know, what do experts say? How likely are these challenges and changes?
SHAPIRO: Well, the challenges are huge. I mean the administration says tuition has more than tripled over the last three decades. The average student graduates with $26,000 in debt. And these are problems that a few generations ago just didn't exist. A few generations ago, college seemed within reach of most people.
Now, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sat on Air Force One this morning, there's this sense that college is for the privileged few, which is all the more troublesome because you see the gap in income, the gap in unemployment between people with college degrees and people without college degrees getting wider and wider and wider.
The unemployment rate for people with a college degree right now is one-third below the national average. The income for somebody with a college degree is twice that of somebody with a high school diploma. So these are real chasms that the administration is hoping to narrow.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, as you said, President Obama is going to be headed to Binghamton, New York, then down to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to continue this. While the headlines are about Egypt, Syria, the upcoming debates over the fall budget battle, immigration - why is he doing this now?
SHAPIRO: You know, the White House has been trying to strike a balance. And they've gone kind of back and forth in the last four or five years, where at some times in the administration you see the president sort of ricocheting from one crisis to the next, talking about the story that's in the headlines on any given day. Then he's in touch with what everybody's talking about but gets accused of sort of, you know, potentially attention deficit disorder.
They've chosen right now to sort of focus on these long-term plans to improve the economy, particularly for the middle class. But then, as you say, they risk being accused of ignoring huge international crises that are holding the attention of the entire world right now.
YOUNG: NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, as the president suggests a new plan for ranking colleges, encouraging them to embrace innovation and improve ways for kids to - students to manage their debt. Ari, thanks so much for speaking to us about it.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Good to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.