Editorial: Why Obama’s community college plans look bleak

During his last stretch in office, President Barrack Obama has set his sights on improving accessibility of higher education, but his two major recent proposals carry conflicting messages.

In January, the president proposed development of an ambitious plan “to lower the cost of community college – to zero.”

Who can argue with that? Not only would this make a substantial dent in the skyrocketing collective student debt, it would also open doors for students who otherwise could not afford to pursue any form of higher education.

If this plan were executed, it would be a monumental achievement in Obama’s legacy, on par with the Affordable Care Act. But is it a pipe dream? Is there a chance of his passing such significant reform with less than two years remaining in office, especially in higher education, an area where the bureaucracy through which innovation must trudge is as thick as any?

It seems Obama himself may have his doubts. As he builds a coalition of lawmakers, philanthropists and higher education leaders to develop the plan, the U.S. Department of Education is concurrently working on a restructuring of financial aid disbursement.

Last August, the president asked the USDE to develop a new rating system for two- and four-year colleges and universities. For the first time, this system would tie $150 billion in federal financial aid to performance-based metrics, rather than enrollment.

The department released the first outline of the rating system in December, asking the public for feedback. The final system is set to be published before the 2015-16 academic year begins. Financial aid could be tied to the ratings as soon as 2018.

Ratings would compare two- and four-year institutions separately and would be based on a number of factors, including the extent to which colleges serve low-income and first-generation students, affordability and completion rates, according the USDE.

After a great deal of controversy was raised over how the system would measure success – as not every student who attends a community college intends to graduate with a degree – the department is exploring the viability of utilizing various “student success” measures including transfer and employment rates, future income, graduate school attendance and loan repayment.

The hope is to improve performance and accessibility of colleges.

“There aren’t many things that are more important to that idea of economic mobility, the idea that you can make it if you try, than a good education,” Obama said in August. “In the face of greater and greater global competition, in a knowledge-based economy, a great education is more important than ever.”

While these two proposals seem to have a common goal they also contradict each other. If community college will be free for most, what is the point in restructuring financial aid?

Two free years of college for all is incredibly ambitious. Is financial aid restructuring simply Obama’s Plan B?

Developing federal metrics for community colleges is a worthwhile effort, whether they’re tied to financial aid or not. Publishing the information for students and their families will allow them to choose the college that best suits their needs. Today, students have more freedom to choose an institution than ever, with online education breaking down geographical barriers.

The Obama administration should continue to craft the ratings system, but hold off on plans to tie it to financial aid, at least for community colleges, until the two free years of college plan is given a fighting chance.

Obama seems to be grasping at straws, desperate to check off “higher education reform” on his to-do list.

While the goal of these plans – to help even the playing field for college students – is desperately needed, Obama is hurting the chances of either passing by presenting a scattered message.

If he honestly believes that two free years of college are needed and possible, why present a distracting alternative?

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