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White House seeks to shake up higher ed

August 30, 2013

ObamaTargeting the soaring cost of higher education, President Barack Obama recently unveiled a proposal for a broad new government rating system for colleges that would judge schools on their affordability and perhaps be used to allocate federal financial aid.

Obama addressed a crowd of 7,000 students at the University at Buffalo last Thursday, arguing that with the nation’s economy still shaky and students facing increasing global competition, making college affordable is “an economic imperative.”

According to administration figures, tuition at public four-year universities has tripled over the last 30 years. Results of a College Board survey indicate the cost of tuition at public four-year colleges is up 27 percent over the past five years.

Still, a degree from Northern Illinois University provides one of the best returns on investment offered by any college or university in the state, according to recent Affordable Colleges Online rankings.

Douglas D. Baker“Ensuring that our students receive an excellent, affordable education – one that prepares them for career success – is at the heart of our mission, and this ranking tells us that we are on the right track,” says NIU President Doug Baker. “Ultimately, our goal is to not only increase the return on investment our students reap in terms of dollars and cents, but also to make them better leaders and citizens.”

Declining state funding has been the chief driver of rising tuition in Illinois and other states. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), per-student funding for public universities has fallen by more than 20 percent in the 17 states with the largest cuts during that same time.

1309-cover[1]Northern Illinois University, however, still ranked No. 57 on Washington Monthly’s 2013 “Best Bang for the Buck” list. The magazine’s new ranking set is based on the economic value students receive per dollar, and the exclusive list highlights the colleges in America that do the best job of helping nonwealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.

Further, there has been little consensus among policymakers on how to curb college costs. While Obama’s proposal could give colleges an incentive to slow increases, it could also add massive reporting requirements that could be a burden on schools already struggling to make ends meet. Unfunded mandates in the state of Illinois have already helped push the cost of delivering a world class education higher for public colleges and universities.

“Our aim is to responsibly manage our own fiscal resources in order to keep college affordable while providing institutional merit aid and need-based assistance,” explains President Baker. “Last year, NIU and our foundation provided undergraduate students with about $25 million in scholarships, waivers and grants. Increasing merit aid has been and will continue to be a priority, and we are thankful to those whose generosity is helping to make this possible.”

PresidentialSeal[1]While the new rating system does not require congressional approval (The White House goal to implement it prior the 2015-16 school year), the president does need support from Congress in order to use the ratings as a basis for distributing federal financial aid dollars.

In addition to tuition, schools will also be rated on average student loan debt, graduation rates and the average earnings of graduates. Under Obama’s proposal, students attending highly rated schools could receive larger grants and more affordable loans.

While 44 percent of all college students graduate without debt, for those that do, the average student loan debt stands at $26,000. On average, college graduates earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates during their lifetime, the largest gap since 1915, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury and U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

The White House is also seeking legislation to give colleges a “bonus” based on the number of students they graduate who received Pell Grants. The goal is to encourage colleges to enroll and graduate low- and moderate-income students.

Northern Illinois has a strong history of serving the region in this capacity. In fact, NIU gained high marks for social mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students); research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs) and service (encouraging students to give something back to their country) in Washington Monthly’s 2012 College Guide and Rankings.

Money-tower-with-diploma[1]President Obama’s other proposals include a requirement that colleges with high dropout rates distribute student aid over the course of the semester rather than in a lump sum. The aim is to ensure that students who drop out do not receive funds for time they are not in school.

Obama also renewed his call for a $1 billion college “Race to the Top” competition that would reward states that make significant changes in higher education policies while also containing tuition costs.

“Higher education has never been more important to our state’s economic health. We must keep college affordable and accessible in order to develop and keep our best and brightest minds in the state,” Baker adds. “At NIU, we remain committed to that goal, working hard to make sure our students have all the necessary resources—academic, technological, social and financial—to be successful.”