College administrators, students and lawmakers in Maine had largely positive reviews Thursday for a series of proposals by President Obama that essentially would grade the nation’s colleges on their affordability.

The president’s plan would, for the first time, rate colleges on criteria such as tuition and student debt, and eventually tie federal aid to schools based on how they measure up.

“I think that is a good way to hold colleges accountable for the services they provide and for how affordable they are,” said Jimmy Jung, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maine.

The most ambitious of the president’s proposals, for the U.S. Department of Education to create a rating system for colleges by 2015, can be adopted through executive action. His more controversial proposal, to link colleges’ federal aid to those ratings by 2018, will need congressional approval.

Colleges would be rated on criteria including tuition costs, scholarships offered, percentage of Pell grant recipients — students from low- and middle-income families — as well as students’ average debt, graduation rates and post-graduation earnings.

“There are schools out there who are terrific values,” Obama told students at the University of Buffalo in New York. “But there are also schools out there that have higher (loan) default rates than graduation rates. And taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing students to go to schools where the kids aren’t graduating.”

Obama pitched the rating system as a consumer guide for prospective students and their parents, evaluating which schools offer “the bigger bang for the buck,” The Washington Post reported.

“Colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high quality education are the ones that are going to see their taxpayer money going up,” Obama said.

He said the nation is in the midst of “a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” with college costs rising by 250 percent in the past three decades while average family incomes have risen only 16 percent.

The result, he said, is many students choosing between forgoing a college education and taking on enormous debt.

In Maine, more than 70 percent of the students who graduated from public and private colleges and universities in 2011 had student loan debt. The average debt among Maine graduates that year was $26,046, slightly below the national average of $26,600, according to a report by the Project on Student Debt.

By comparison, Maine’s median household income as of the last census was $47,898.

Nationally, some higher-education officials expressed trepidation about Obama’s proposal.

Colleges will likely be concerned about losing federal dollars, and some observers said the ratings could prompt colleges to admit only higher-achieving students.

“This is extraordinarily complicated stuff, and it’s not clear we have the complete data or accurate data,” Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities, told The Associated Press.

The response from Maine’s colleges was more positive.

At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where annual tuition and fees total $57,834, spokesman Doug Cook said, “On the factors described today in President Obama’s plan — graduation rates, graduate earnings, affordability and access — we are confident that Bowdoin will measure very well. … Bowdoin is committed to enrolling qualified students of all backgrounds, regardless of their ability to pay our fees.”

Cook said Bowdoin will provide $32.5 million in need-based financial aid this year. The average grant for students receiving aid this year will be $36,600. Bowdoin has high first-year retention rates and six-year graduation rates — 96 percent and 94 percent, respectively.

In the University of Maine System, about 84 percent of the students receive need-based financial aid, Jung said. This year’s freshman class will be the first to be offered a “financial literacy” program aimed at helping students and their families better understand the cost of their college education, the differences between federal and private loans, and how best to manage their expenses to reduce debt.

The total cost to attend Bates College in Lewiston this year is $58,950, but with financial aid, the average “net cost” is $21,402, according to data on a White House “college scorecard” website on affordability.

Bates President Clayton Spencer praised Obama for his “focus on access and results in higher education.”

“More than 45 percent of Bates students receive financial aid, with an average grant for those on aid in excess of $38,000,” Spencer said in a prepared statement. “We work hard to support all of our students for success, and 93 percent of those who enter Bates graduate with a bachelor’s degree.”

Several past and present Maine college students expressed hope, but skepticism, that an affordability rating system will reduce costs.

Paul Grazia, 29, a mental health case manager at Opportunity Alliance in Portland, is paying off $46,000 in debt from his undergraduate studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin and graduate studies at the University of Southern Maine.

“I did my undergraduate at Beloit because I could play baseball there, and I did my graduate work at USM because it was the least expensive option around,” Grazia said. “I probably would have considered more options if there was an affordability rating system, but there’s only so much you can afford, and I have some friends who have more than $100,000 in student debt.”

Kelsey Weber, 20, and Kara Munro, 21, will be juniors this year at the Maine College of Art in Portland. By graduation, Weber figures she will owe about $40,000 while Monro’s total student debt will be closer to $80,000.

Both said an affordability rating system would help students make better choices about higher education.

“I think some people don’t realize how much money is going into their education until they’ve spent it,” Monro said. “I think if you saw how much debt the average student has when they graduate from a school, it would help you decide whether you want to go to that school.”

Obama’s agenda likely will face stiff challenges in the highly partisan Congress, even though some of his proposals have been implemented in states under Republican leadership.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said a state-by-state approach would be preferable.

“Washington needs to be careful about taking a good idea for one state and forcing all 6,000 institutions of higher education to do the exact same thing, turning Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities,” Alexander said, according to the Associated Press.

But independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who along with Alexander was a key negotiator of the recent bipartisan compromise to overhaul the way student loan interest rates are set, said he was pleased to see the president introduce a college affordability proposal.

In particular, King praised a plan to allow more students to take advantage of a program that caps monthly loan payments at 10 percent of income.

“The Senate has a real opportunity to tackle the issue of college affordability and the $1 trillion in outstanding student debt at the end of this year when we move to reauthorize the Higher Education Act,” King said. “I will work with the administration and my colleagues in Congress to make steady strides forward in that effort.”

White House officials said Thursday that the president plans to work on college affordability with many of the lawmakers who negotiated the student loan deal.

King’s office confirmed Thursday that King has had discussions with the White House since the bill signing earlier this month, but would not provide further details of those discussions.

 

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com