Obama's Lowdown on Higher Education and Student Loan Debt (Opinion)

Tim Goral's picture
Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Barack Obama can relate to one complaint from “Occupy” protesters. He and his wife once had to pay off $120,000 in student debt.

So when the president met Monday with leaders of prominent universities at the White House, he spoke with some authority about the high cost of tuition as well as a need for better teaching by faculty to ensure American workers stay competitive.

Mr. Obama’s own education paid off. Just look where he sits. But for many in college today, dropping out is all too common when money dries up. And too many graduates fail to land jobs in their chosen fields or they don’t meet the hiring standards of employers because faculty aren’t held accountable for what students actually learn.

Obama has a tool to help fix all that. He plans to tie federal aid to how well schools perform.

His education secretary, Arne Duncan, proposes that Pell Grants and other government money for higher education be based on how well such institutions reform, such as in holding down tuition, accelerating the time to earn a degree, boosting completion rates, and closing gaps in student achievement.

Too many colleges prefer the status quo, says Mr. Duncan. He quotes President Woodrow Wilson, who once led Princeton University, as saying that “changing a curriculum is like moving a graveyard – you never know how many friends the dead have until you try to move them.”

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