The president also will seek congressional approval — which could prove difficult — to steer more federal student aid toward colleges that score highly in the ratings. A student in financial need at such schools might qualify for a larger Pell grant or a better interest rate on a federal loan.
The result, officials hope, will be relief for families from college bills that are in many cases three times as high as they were 30 years ago even after adjusting for inflation. Average tuition and fees topped $8,600 last year at public four-year colleges and $29,000 at private and nonprofit schools. The total annual bill, counting room and board, exceeds $50,000 at many elite schools.
“Higher education should not be a luxury. It is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford,” Obama told students packed into a basketball arena at the University at Buffalo.
Obama’s plan relies in part on his executive power to collect, manage and publish data. But it is likely to draw significant criticism from colleges intent on protecting their market share, and a divided Congress will present an immediate obstacle to elements of the plan that require legislation.
Obama said that in a global, knowledge-based economy, a quality college education is more important than ever. He pitched the ratings system as a consumer guide for prospective students and parents, evaluating which schools offer “the bigger bang for the buck.” His idea is that accountability will yield affordability.
“Colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high-quality education are the ones that are going to see their taxpayer money going up,” Obama said.
College leaders say rising tuition is a function of labor costs and, in the case of public institutions, declining state financial support. They also note that affluent students who pay full price often subsidize those in need, who obtain steep discounts. They said they support giving consumers more information but signaled that Obama might face a fight over attempts to enlarge the federal role in the college market.
“We will be vigilant in working to prevent tying the receipt of aid to metrics, which could have a profoundly negative impact on the very students and families the administration is trying to help,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities. Fluctuations in federal student aid, many educators argue, would produce problems for students in financial need who depend on grants to pay their bills, especially if those students attend a school that receives a lower rating.