DC Shuttle: Congress Looking at Obama’s Plans to Reward Colleges that Keep Down Costs

Members on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) took advantage of a hearing Thursday on containing the cost of higher education to voice their thoughts on President Obama’s plan to reward colleges who keep costs down with increased federal support. Several Republican members were concerned that the administration was effectively “picking winners and losers” by determining what constitutes affordable. Committee Ranking Member Michael Enzi (R-WY) pressed Undersecretary Martha Kanter from the Education Department for a funding source for the president’s plan. He cited a CBO estimate that maintaining the current 3.4% interest rate for federal student loans for an extra year—another of the president’s proposals—would cost $5.9 billion versus the planned increase to 6.8%. Kanter responded that specific offsets would be included in the president’s budget proposal for FY2013, expected on Feb. 13. “This won’t cost taxpayers more,” she said. Most of the Committee’s Democrats were supportive of the president’s plan, and Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) commended the president for taking “bold action to address the spiraling costs of higher education.” Sen. Harkin said that he plans to hold several hearings on college affordability.

The Education Department wants to hear from colleges, states, nonprofit organizations and other stakeholders on their successful college completion strategies. With an eye toward achieving President Obama’s goal of having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020, Education Secretary Arne Duncan hopes to gather best practices for increasing college completion rates and post the results online. He also held a symposium on the subject last Monday. The deadline to submit “promising and practical strategies” that have improved rates of postsecondary success, transfer, and graduation” for the first round of review is April 30. In addition, the department has released a draft version of the “College Scorecard” which would be used by prospective students to compare cost, graduation rate, debt accumulation and repayment, and job placement rate between colleges. Interested parties are invited to comment on the draft at the White House’s website.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a new $100 million program to coordinate research projects among different universities, with the goal of addressing problems faced in the developing world. The funding will be portioned out over five years to research universities specializing in a range of disciplines, such as water conservation or energy solutions. Broader coalitions with businesses and nonprofit organizations will also be encouraged. USAID has released a draft request for application (RFA), with a final version expected by Feb. 8, and applications due April 3.

As a member of New England Council, we publish the DC Shuttle each week featuring higher ed news from Washington. This edition is drawn from the Council’s Weekly Washington Report Higher Education Update, of Feb. 6, 2012.

Founded in 1925, the New England Council is a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the New England region. The Council’s mission is to identify and support federal public policies and articulate the voice of its membership regionally and nationally on important issues facing New England. For more information, please visit: www.newenglandcouncil.com.


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