Higher ed experts respond to Obama's Higher Education Act


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Experts and one University of Iowa official welcomed President Obama’s focus on college affordability during his State of the Union address. However, many said they are wary about his plans for the Higher Education Act.

“Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we’ve made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years,” Obama said during Tuesday evening’s speech.

The president also mentioned he would call on Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so “affordability and value” are included in deciding which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.

One part of the act includes on-campus aid, including federal work-study, Perkins Loans, and other grants.

While Obama did not offer details on his plan, experts said the specifics will be the key to how they view the possible changes.

“Let’s see what the outcomes are empirically before we do widespread changes in how we fund students,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid and Fastweb.com. “I’m concerned about a policy based on a sketchy idea that might have counterproductive results.”

Kantrowitz was most concerned about how Obama’s wording seemed very similar to a previous proposal. He fears schools that have lower-income students or other populations, which have historically lower graduation rates, may be penalized when compared with other schools.

Another expert felt it’s time universities have more at stake when it comes to financial aid.

“It’s appropriate to encourage schools to have more skin in the game,” said Heather Jarvis, a student- loan expert. “We just can’t keep providing more and more student loans to cover higher and higher costs.”

One UI economist said the source of the problem is not more government regulation but “too much intervention.”

“To me, more tinkering around with the rules is really not going to solve anything,” said Patrick Barron, UI adjunct lecturer in economics. “My view is to get the government completely out of the business of encouraging or discouraging people to go to college.”

The Higher Education Act will be up for reauthorization at the end of the year, which experts said could range from small tweaks to big changes.

Obama also called on accountability for universities to cut costs.

“Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure that they do,” he said Tuesday.

University of Iowa Director of Financial Aid Mark Warner detailed two ways the UI helps prospective students make fair comparisons.

First, the UI voluntarily provides all prospective students for next fall the “shopping sheet” — a one-page report that includes information on financial aid — in addition to a net-cost calculator that costs the UI $4,500 a year to allow students to see what aid they would qualify for.

“It’s all about trying to make sure prospective students and parents have the best information to work with,” Warner said. “We want to help families make apple to apple comparisons.”

The Department of Education on Wednesday also released the college scorecard, which allows students another way to compare universities. Warner said he wondered if this emphasis on comparison was beginning to get too repetitive.

“Why is there a need for the calculator, sheet, and the scorecard?” he said.

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