State of the Union: What can Obama do about college tuition?

President Obama hit hard on college tuition costs in his State of the Union speech, calling on Congress to extend the tuition tax credit and to stop student loan interest from doubling in July.

Saul Loeb/AP
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday.

President Obama hit hard on issues of college affordability in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and continued to emphasize the importance of excellent teaching in K-12 education.

He called on states to raise the compulsory age of education to 18; called on Congress to extend the tuition tax credit, to stop the interest on student loans from doubling in July, and to pass the DREAM Act; and issued a threat to higher education institutions who fail to keep costs in check and keep tuition down.

“Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down,” Obama said. “Higher education can’t be a luxury – it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”

It was unclear, however, from Obama’s speech – and in the blueprint that his administration sent out afterward – exactly how he plans to carry out this threat.

“Unlike K-12 where lots of money pours into programs, there’s much less [Federal] money pouring into higher-education programs,” says Rita Kirshstein, director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. Most of the money that does go to schools is in the form of research funds, she says, along with Pell Grants and subsidized loans for students.

While Ms. Kirshstein says withholding student grant and loan money could be disastrous for some students, she believes withholding research dollars might cause faculty to put pressure on administrators to look hard at their costs. Kirshstein hopes the plan would be placed in a broader context, looking at how much various states have cut back their higher-ed funding, for instance.

“The devil is in the details if it’s going to be done effectively,” she says.

As for Obama’s other proposals, Kirshstein says she was glad to see him sound the dual themes of states making higher ed a higher priority in their budgets, and colleges and universities doing more with less.

These aren’t new themes for the administration, which has worked to improve student aid by increasing the maximum Pell Grant size last year and moving to a system of direct government loans, and which hosted a summit on higher education productivity and cost in December. But the ideas seem to be getting increased attention now.

“Those of us in higher education are always happy when higher ed issues are recognized because so much of the attention typically goes to K-12,” says Kirshstein. Obama, she believes, “is indeed serious about this issue.”

Not that he neglected K-12 topics in his speech.

Some themes that he has hit before, like calling on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (sometimes better known in its current incarnation as No Child Left Behind), were notably absent – perhaps a reflection of the impossibility of getting such a bill passed in an election year.

But in his speech Obama continued to preach the importance of teaching and accountability. His education agenda so far has defied typical partisan lines: Some of its most frequent critics are loyal Democrats, including the teachers’ unions, while some Republicans have praised it.

In fact, in Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’s response to the State of the Union Tuesday night, he praised just two aspects of Obama’s tenure as president: killing Osama bin Laden and “bravely backing long overdue changes in public education.”

Obama was particularly diplomatic in how he handled his remarks on teachers, who have, in many cases, sharply rebelled against his administration’s agenda of increased accountability, more data, and evaluations linked to student achievement.

“Teachers matter,” Obama said. “So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.”

In return, he said, he wants to “grant schools flexibility:  to teach with creativity and passion, to stop teaching to the test, and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

Teachers’ unions seized on the message, in particular the line about “teaching to the test.” A common complaint about the direction of education reform – including Obama’s Race to the Top initiative – is that it encourages instruction driven only by standardized tests.

Obama “made clear tonight what America’s teachers have long understood,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “We can’t test our way to a middle class; we must educate our way to a middle class. The overemphasis on testing has led to narrowing of the curriculum, rather than creating a path to critical thinking and problem solving.”

But nothing in Obama’s comments, or the blueprint his administration released, indicated he was backing off from his controversial education reform goals.

While he didn’t mention Race to the Top by name, he lauded what it has accomplished, in terms of pushing states to enact tough reforms. “For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning,” he said.

And he continues to tout teacher quality, both recognizing the best and replacing ineffective teachers. “We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” he said.

In his blueprint, Obama particularly emphasized the need to reform the teaching profession, including pushing to make teacher education schools more effective and selective, to improve professional development, and to reshape tenure and evaluation systems.

Obama didn't clarify the means by which he wants to achieve these goals, though an existing federal program, the Teacher Incentive Fund, is already being used to improve teacher effectiveness and reform the teacher pay system, among other goals.

“It’s notable that the president will continue to aggressively promote this new federal priority in education,” including teacher effectiveness, data systems, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, says David DeSchryver, vice president of education policy for Whiteboard Advisors, an education consulting group.

While he offered conciliatory rhetoric to teachers’ unions, Mr. DeSchryver notes, Obama still holds that teacher evaluations should be used for both hiring and firing teachers.

“And given that we’re heading into an election season, it’s notable that he’s willing to stand behind that,” DeSchryver says. 

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