Getting college costs under control

President Obama this week unveiled some solid ideas for addressing the problem of high college tuition costs that prevent some from attending the college of their choice and leave many others saddled with massive debt after they graduate.

At the core of the president's proposal is creation of a federal rating system that will include such things as "how much debt does the average student leave with, how easy it is to pay off, how many students graduate on time, how well do these graduates do in the workforce," said President Obama.

This system would have a two-fold purpose. First, it would provide students and their parents vital information on the value various colleges offer for the investment. This would generate greater competition to keep costs reasonable, provide incentives for more student assistance and encourage college's to shepherd students toward graduation in four years, or less.

Secondly, such metrics could be used to allocate federal financial aid. Students at better performing colleges could expect larger federal grants and more affordable loans, under the president's plan. Nonperforming schools would see subsidies shrink.

There are shortfalls and problems with the idea. Coming up with a fair and comprehensive scoring system that can allow worthwhile comparisons between various colleges - liberal arts and technical; small schools and large; public institutions and private - will be a major challenge. And colleges would be tempted to game the ratings by adjusting, perhaps lowering, standards.

President Obama also called for innovative approaches to make a college education more affordable, including expanding the use of online courses and offering accelerated programs to allow some students to achieve a degree in three years.

It is not vital that these particular ideas be put into place, but it is vital that a serious policy discussion begin. The New York Times reports that the actual price of a public university education, after factoring in financial aid, has gone up an average of 5 percent per year for the past two decades. The figure for private, nonprofit, four-year colleges had been 4 percent per year. Those increases outstrip even the growth in the cost of health care.

The sharp increases at public universities have been driven in part by a cutback in state support, certainly true here in Connecticut. In a recent meeting with The Day editorial board, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said the state once provided a 50 percent block grant to help cover costs, but now pays 27 percent of university expenses, the cost shifted to student tuition.

Making college more affordable should be a bipartisan goal. Student loan debt now tops $1 trillion nationally. Increasingly, entry into the middle class demands a higher education. But the cost of that education must be reasonable. Graduates strapped with massive debt will struggle to get by, delay buying homes, and putting off or abandoning plans to further their education. Free of crushing debt, young college graduates could dramatically boost the economy.

Second District Congressman Joe Courtney, who also recently visited with the editorial board, talked about his invitation to attend President Obama's signing of the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act two weeks ago. Rep. Courtney got the attention of the administration after being assigned the task of rounding up Democratic votes in the House to pass the compromise that will keep federal student loan interest rates in check, at least in the short term.

The congressman noted that at the signing the president said the battle did not end with controlling student loan interest rates. The more important challenge is reducing college costs.

Rep. Courtney has a moderate record and a proven willingness to find compromise. As a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee he could again play an important part, this time by finding agreement on college cost policy.

Many Republican lawmakers immediately voiced reservations about the president's plan, no surprise since any ideas coming from the White House seem to generate a negative reaction. But Republicans owe it to their constituents to offer alternative ideas. The high cost of a higher education for America's families is a problem that cuts across political lines.

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