Colleges embrace goals but await details on Obama plan to link federal aid to student success

As President Barack Obama toured the Northeast to promote his plan to make colleges more accountable and affordable, leaders of Charleston-area schools embraced those goals.

At a glance

President Obama’s college affordability and accountability plan.

Tie financial aid to college performance, with ratings to be developed by fall 2015, and hold students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree. For example, students could be required to complete courses before receiving grants for the next semester.

Strip away unnecessary regulation and provide additional assistance to states and universities that are coming up with good ideas.

Allow all federal student loan borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income.

But every one of them also said some variation of “the devil is in the details.”

A key part of the president’s plan calls for linking federal student aid to college outcomes, such as graduation rates, student debt levels, and student success in the workforce.

A system for measuring those outcomes is to be developed by the 2015 school year, but linking those metrics to federal aid would require approval by Congress.

Trident Technical College President Mary Thornley said she welcomes accountability — and would very much like to see it applied to some of TTC’s for-profit rivals — but wonders how a grading system would account for different student populations.

For example, Thornley said a student who takes several classes at TTC in order to get a specific job, and then gets that job, would be seen as not having graduated, when in fact the student got what they wanted.

“As far as the system is concerned, he’s a failure,” she said. And it’s one reason why TTC’s official graduation rate hovers below 10 percent.

“It’s hard to argue with a president’s plan to deal with access, affordability and outcomes, but the devil is in the details,” Thornley said.

Thomas Elzey, South Carolina State University’s new president, said he doesn’t have a problem with connecting financial aid to institutional performance, as long as that’s done with a fair and consistent formula that considers the socio-economic status of students.

“Many low-income students come from school districts that leave them (educationally) behind those from wealthier school districts,” Elzey said.

The suggestion is that it could be unfair to simply look at S.C. State’s 35 percent six-year graduation rate and nearly 19 percent student loan default rate, and compare it with University of South Carolina’s 70 percent graduation rate and 3 percent loan default rate.

Brian R. McGee, chief of staff at College of Charleston, also said different populations would need to be accounted for in any measurements.

“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the framework (of Obama’s plan),” he said. “Most public universities in South Carolina would have very little difficulty demonstrating their achievements in these areas.”

There’s lots of federal money at stake.

More than half of all college students rely on some federal aid, and the average graduate leaves college carrying about $26,000 in loan debt.

“There are schools out there who are terrific values,” Obama told students at State University of New York, Buffalo, on Thursday during the first leg of his bus tour. “But there are also schools out there that have higher default rates than graduation rates.”

In addition to linking federal aid to school performance, Obama called for an expansion of the pay-as-you-earn program, which caps the payment on certain federal student loans at 10 percent of the student’s monthly income.

The president also said “state legislatures are going to have to step up. They can’t just keep cutting support for public colleges and universities.”

University of South Carolina spokesman Wes Hickman echoed some of Obama’s points Friday.

“Drastic cuts in state funding, along with mandated and rising costs for utilities, insurance, health care, equipment, facilities and infrastructure have forced students and their families to bear a greater share of the cost of education,” Hickman said. “This model is no longer sustainable.”

He said USC has been providing innovative solutions to make degrees more affordable and accessible, and will “welcome a conversation about accountability and transparency.”

Karl McDonnell, CEO of Strayer University, one of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges with 100 campuses including one in North Charleston, said the company supports linking federal aid to degree programs.

“We at Strayer University certainly don’t shy away from that scrutiny,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of specifics to respond to, but making a college more affordable for the middle class is certainly something we support.”

The Republican National Committee declared that “Obama’s plan lands with a thud,” in an online posting with links to news coverage, including Chronicle of Higher Education stories in which some educators worried that grading colleges could have unintended consequences.

Diane Knich contributed to this report. Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.

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