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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Can Obama make college affordable?

Published: September 13, 2013
Section: Opinions

College prices are absurdly high. Financial strain goes almost hand in hand with education, as only a very small percentage of people are unburdened by the current and continuously rising costs of college. This is nothing new, albeit cumbersome, to students who are trying to get a degree and build way for a successful future.

It seems, however, that Washington, D.C., is finally making foreseeable progress in high quality, affordable learning. President Obama recently spoke to students at the University of Buffalo about a proposed plan to lower college costs. His plan includes changing the college rating system, creating competition between schools on outcomes such as affordability and success and improving programs to help students manage debt when they graduate.

For the 2012-2013 academic year, Brandeis tuition cost $43,708 and since then, has increased approximately 4 percent. Like students at colleges across the country, many of us are concerned about loans, debt and financial aid. If Obama’s plan comes to action by the proposed 2015 timeline, this will be a huge benefit to our community.

The first goal of the plan is to change the ranking system. U.S. News posts the infamous ranking system based on selectivity with which most people are familiar. This would remain intact, but in addition to this, a federally-backed ranking system based on value would be instituted.

Such a ranking system would prompt schools not only to be more affordable, but to have the highest-quality education system possible. As Obama explained, sometimes selectivity of a school goes hand in hand with price. This ranking system, however, would focus on criteria related to overall value.

This lends to competition between schools, which the plan would help enable. In order to better compete on the rankings, schools would have to focus on the following criteria: How easy is it to pay off debt? How well do graduates do in the workforce? With such criteria, schools are held accountable for students’ concerns.

Schools will be rewarded with more taxpayer money if they provide high quality and affordable education. Thus, innovation will also be rewarded. Obama discussed some methods that have already been implemented in different schools. For instance, schools and students can save money with methods such as online classes. There are also community colleges available that work with universities to satisfy graduation requirements so that students can finish earlier and save money. The emphasis is not on losing any quality in education, simply lowering costs.

As for helping students manage debt, Obama’s plan seeks to create a campaign making more college graduates aware of the “Pay as you Earn” plan already in place. This plan is designed to decrease the financial burden for college grads, only requiring 10 percent of salary to go toward college debt. He also plans to expand eligibility to more graduates.

Some are concerned with the amount Obama plans to tackle versus what will actually occur. Critics also stress that linking government to college rankings is not a good move. Such a ranking system would also be very complex to maintain and design. While I agree that it is hard to change the rankings, I think it would be invaluable to give more credit to schools that have both affordability and high quality of education. If the federal government provides more aid to schools that strive to create the highest value for students, I believe that this can only lead to positive change.

The argument that linking college rankings to the federal government is not a good choice is another interesting point. I can understand why people would feel this way. However, I see the price of college as a nation-wide crisis. Unless drastic federal changes are made, it is hard to imagine monumental change in the system. As much as it is nice to imagine schools themselves initiating change, the majority of schools are willing to keep the prices as they are. People pay because they feel they have to; they feel that there’s no alternative.

It’s the feeling of being trapped—you want to go to a top school and feel it’s important to your overall goals and success, but cost looms over your mind. Because college is essential to landing a good job, students are pressured to take out enormous loans or to ask their families to pay large bills to attend top schools.

In an ideal world, working hard in high school and in extracurriculars would allow one to go on to college without having to deal with the burden of finances. It is a difficult issue that has much to be addressed. I can only hope that Obama is taking initiative in designing an innovative plan. The U.S. Department of Education will play a crucial role in putting this plan into action. If universities comply, big changes could be made by 2015. Students should also take initiative in looking at all the possible financing options that may be made available to them individually, should the proposal be passed.