August 23, 2013

Obama's college-aid plan plays well in Maine

The president proposes grading schools on affordability, and tying federal financial aid to the results.

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

and Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

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.

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Barack Obama
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President Obama explains his college-aid plan Thursday at the University of Buffalo. He said it would devote taxpayer money to schools providing the “bigger bang for the buck.”

The Associated Press

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Paul Grazia, a former USM graduate student, is paying off $46,000 in college debt.

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Kelsey Weber, left, and Kara Munro, Maine College of Art juniors, will owe $40,000 and $80,000, respectively.


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Today's poll: College rating system

Will President Obama's proposed government rating system help more Maine students attend college?



View Results