As college costs rise, Obama puts forth plan to punish expensive schools

Kassondra Cloos
Producer of The Swing
The Pendulum

The grueling task of paying for a college education — private or public — is often terrifying for the thousands of middle and lower-class families who take out loan after loan, year after year.

For some, the federal government offers sufficient aid in the form of scholarships, grants and subsidized loans. But for others, whose families need but do not qualify for financial aid, tuition payments are increasingly painful.

President Barack Obama recently presented a federal tuition assistance proposal that would include using federal aid as an incentive for institutions to keep costs low. The program rewards more affordable schools by offering their students increased aid. Obama also proposed extending lower interest rates for Stafford Loans and permanently offering tax breaks to families paying for college, both set to expire this year.

The plan has not yet gone to Congress for debate, and many of the provisions are vague and unresolved, according to Adam Short, a political science lecturer at Elon University. Students made up a large portion of the demographic that elected Obama in 2008, and Short said that may influence Obama’s decisions about education in light of the upcoming election.

“It’s an issue of concern to young voters and it’s an issue of concern to parents of young voters,” he said. “If he feels that’s a vote-moving issue for them, that’s something that might factor into his decision-making. In a year like this, it’s hard to say because the economy still is not doing great, so that’s going to be a driving issue for voters. This plan is sort of tied to that, but I don’t know to what extent education is a vote-moving issue.”

While the terms of “punishment” have not yet been defined, more expensive schools may find their students have limited eligibility for some types of aid, like federal work study and Perkins loans.

Elon is consistently ranked as a good value school among its competitors and is not in danger of being punished under the proposal, according to Patrick Murphy, director of Financial Planning. But Obama has yet to define a “good value” in the context of his proposal, and Murphy said he thinks punished schools may see their diversity suffer.

“Schools can always fill the seat, it just depends on how you want the class to look,” he said. “If you start losing financial aid, you’re going to lose diversity. It makes the school less interesting. That’s the part of the plan I don’t think has been well thought out.”

Senior Brittany Moore, who is responsible for her own tuition and living expenses, said she would not have been able to attend Elon without a combination of federal aid and institutional scholarships and grants. She has a part–time job and has been working since high school, but she still has thousands of dollars in loans.

“Hopefully (Obama’s plan) would mean pushing (expensive schools) to lower things and give out more aid and such,” she said. “But if it doesn’t, it could limit a lot of people who can’t afford it who would be great for that school.”

Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrinch has spoken sharply against heavily subsidizing college tuition with federal dollars, saying students don’t rush to graduate because they have the funding.

But freshmen Niki Molinaro and Dash Jepsen, both of whom do not receive federal financial aid, said the government should work harder to help students pay for college.

Molinaro, who filled out the FAFSA form and did not qualify for aid, said she thinks it’s difficult for families to get the assistance they need because of restrictions on eligibility.

“My stepdad talked about how he went through law school at St. John’s and paid for it all working as a bartender,” she said. “But the price of schools has gone up so astronomically that that’s not really an option anymore. We can’t work as a waitress or work as a bartender and pay for college with our tips, especially with this job market and not having the guarantee of getting a job when we get out of school.”

Jepsen, who said both of his parents put themselves through college and have talked about the corresponding challenges, said he thinks working excessively while in school affects students’ studies and undermines the value of their education.

“If we want to succeed as a country, we need to promote higher education and the government needs to help out in that regard,” he said.

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