President's Remarks Raise Concerns
Published: August 29, 2013
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President Barack Obama unveiled plans to make college education more affordable for the middle class during a visit to Scranton's Lackawanna College last week.
Citing a gap between the rising cost of higher education and average household salaries, the President expressed his desire to establish a federal college ranking system based on the opportunities they provide to students as well as his plans to encourage innovative actions on the part of the nation's colleges to provide students with quality education at a lower cost. Obama also discussed plans to cap federal student loan payments at 10 percent of their salaries.
"So if we do these three things - increase value, encourage innovation, help people manage their debt after graduation - then we'll help more students afford college," he said. "We'll help more students graduate from college. We'll help more students keep their debt low and repay it faster. We can do that."
While Obama's plans have generally been met with praise, officials at several local colleges have expressed concerns over the proposed federal college ratings, which remain murky.
"It's unclear how a rating system would work, which is something he alluded to," said Ken Knelly, spokesman for Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Clarks Summit. "The president's proposal doesn't really detail that beyond noting there'd be greater federal financial aid for colleges with higher graduation rates, lower graduate debt loads, good job placement rates and, perhaps, incomes, etc. It's not clear how that would be figured."
"We support efforts to keep college affordable," he added. "Whether this plan as it develops works out to something that indeed does that and we could ultimately support it is an open question. Not enough is known at this point."
One major concern lies with how the rating system will distinguish between colleges with differing student backgrounds.
"The potential exists to disenfranchise those colleges with students from predominantly low socioeconomic backgrounds and subsidize colleges with students from families who are financially prosperous," said Fran Calpin, spokesman for LaPlume-based Keystone College. "Rating colleges based on the incomes of their graduates needs to be discussed at a deeper level than merely income derived from a particular job."
Calpin explained that many small regional institutions produce graduates who work in fields, such as education or human services, that do not have high pay scales.
"A rating system that does not take this into account would not be equitable," he said.
Benton Twp. resident and president of Lackawanna College Col. Mark Volk explained that when ranking institutions, the government also needs to take into consideration the differences between 2-year colleges like his own and 4-year colleges, such as Keystone.
"If you use the same metrics, it is comparing apples to oranges," he said, explaining that Lackawanna College, as a two-year institution, has to report its graduation rate to the federal government on an annual basis. In order to compute that figure, the college can only use first-time, full-time students. Students who began their studies at Lackawanna College in the spring or who began their educations elsewhere and transferred to the school are not included in that figure.
"I think we have to understand that it's not necessarily a failure for us to have someone come in and not graduate," he added. "It is definitely not a failure to us to have someone spend a semester here and transfer elsewhere. How you account for all of those things has to be part of the metrics in how you evaluate the quality of what we are doing. We truly are different, and for good reason. We serve a different population of students."
To read President Obama's speech in its entirety, visit http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/23/remarks-president-college-affordability-scranton-pa