College Affordability Act falls short

Published 11:42 am Tuesday, October 8, 2013

By RICK BARTH / Guest Columnist

Let me state the obvious — college is expensive. Average tuition rates have doubled in real dollars from 1980 until today. The repercussions include an increasing number of citizens believing the cost of a college education is out of their reach and the U.S. student loan debt skyrocketing past the $1 trillion mark. Both are problems that need to be addressed, as a vibrant and affordable American higher-education system is critical to our country’s success.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama’s College Affordability Plan falls short of truly addressing the issue. The most-troubling weakness of the plan is that it does not distinguish among institution types such as public or private, or four-year and two-year.

How is a federal rating system going to account for the varying qualities that schools as diverse as Vanderbilt, UAB, and Northwest Florida Community College bring to the table?

A better approach is to look at the cost drivers associated with institutions by type. For example, until recently, public higher education was supported by states at a level that allowed the vast majority of residents to be able to attend college with a manageable amount of student loan debt. This changed when states began to substantially cut education appropriations each year. From 2007 to 2013, state funding per college student dropped by more than 25 percent.

A simple plan to address affordability at public universities is for states to reverse this trend and increase state appropriations by 5 percent for five years. In return, public universities would commit to holding tuition and fees at current levels.

This would immediately start bringing down the average amount of student loan debt for students attending public institutions and allow students to plan and budget without concern of tuition increasing every year.

Unfortunately, the president’s plan misses the opportunity to address the unique nature of institution types. There is no doubt we have to make college more affordable. However, poorly thought-out plans that do not account for the differences in institution types and the various cost drivers of those institutions will be counterproductive at a time when progress in this area is long overdue.

Dr. Rick Barth is the vice president for enrollment management at the University of Montevallo.