The big idea in President Obama's new proposal for tackling the growing crisis in college affordability can be boiled down to this: linking federal higher education aid to a new grading system that would rate colleges and universities on the "value" they provide students.
While the president offered a series of ideas, the one with potentially the most bite would, come 2018, condition the size of Pell Grants — money the federal government provides for financially needy students — on how high the institution in question scores on the value index.
Obama described the factors he proposes throwing into the value mix:
"I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity — are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed ... and on outcomes, on their value to students and parents. So that means metrics like how much debt does the average student leave with? How easy is it to pay off? How many students graduate on time? How well do those graduates do in the workforce? Because the answers will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers."
Let's set aside for a moment the fact that, while many of the early reactions were polite, the Obama proposal is likely to be controversial in academia because it would create yet another ranking system (move over, U.S.News & World Report). Such rankings have come under withering criticism from inside and outside the academic community.
The more immediate point is that these changes would require congressional action, which has become something of an oxymoron, especially in terms of any of Obama's initiatives getting through the GOP-run House. Specifically, Congress would need to write Obama's suggested changes into its reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
In a statement reacting to the president's proposals, Rep. John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who heads the House Education and Workforce Committee — with jurisdiction over higher education policy — expressed notable doubts about Obama's big idea:
"While I am pleased the president's new plan recognizes the importance of promoting innovation and competition in higher education, 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."
Worth noting is that one of the nation's top liberal arts institutions, Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., lies in Kline's congressional district. Carleton belongs to the Annapolis Group of liberal arts colleges long opposed to U.S. News' ranking system. It's a safe guess that many members of the group will view the president's proposal skeptically, at the very least.
Which leads back to the early polite reception to Obama's proposal. The American Council on Education, which, among other roles, is the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for college and university presidents, used the phrase "the devil is in the details" in its statement. In Washington, that phrase is often the equivalent of the proverbial 10-foot pole. Part of the statement from ACE President Molly Corbett Broad:
"Today's proposals, which we continue to investigate, would seem to create a system of ranking institutions based on a set of outcomes-related data. The administration already has some of this data and will seek more. As usual, the devil is in the details, but we are encouraged that the administration has invited the higher education community to be part of this conversation. We will be vigilant in working to prevent tying the receipt of aid to metrics, which could have a profoundly negative impact on the very students and families the administration is trying to help."
Robert Shireman, a former top official in Obama's Education Department who now heads a higher education advocacy group in California, certainly is aware of how things work in Washington. He tweeted a key question after the president's speech:
"#BarackObama college plan: good there's time built in to develop the details. Big Q: will college lobbyists cooperate or undermine as usual?"