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October 19, 2012 10:00 AM Obama’s Record on College Education

By Max Ehrenfreund

An analysis in The New York Times yesterday summarizes a wide range of criticisms of of President Barack Obama’s higher education policies. Reading it, one might get the impression that what the president has done in post-secondary education has somehow been controversial. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.

The administration’s college education strategy has flaws, to be sure. One could argue that by sheltering students and institutions from the expenses they incur, policies to make college more affordable will likely cause schools not to look for more efficient ways to teach students. A study published this week by the New America Foundation issued that warning with regard to the administration’s proposals for income-contingent repayment plans. Borrowers with these loans pay monthly based on how much they’re earning, instead of paying a fixed amount every month for a set time.

Yet it’s just misleading to write, as Richard Pérez-Peña does, that policies to make college more affordable “could have the paradoxical effect of driving up college costs.”

Pérez-Peña quotes the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey who suggests that if there were no federal aid at all, colleges would be forced to run more efficiently.

That may be true, for reasons such as those described in the New America Foundation study. The actual expense of running a university might be increasing faster than it would otherwise as a result of federal aid. That does not mean that students will pay more for college. According to the College Board, financial aid has substantially mitigated the rising cost of education, as Pérez-Peña notes. While advertised tuition has increased by 5.1 percent above inflation over the last five academic years, the net cost to students has only increased by 1.4 percent.

McCluskey’s claim neatly dodges the larger question of what the government’s purpose in funding higher education ought to be: whether the government should insist on efficiency or on improving rates of college attendance and graduation.

Another criticism in the article is simply false. Scott Fleming, who advises Mitt Romney on education, claims that additional income-contingent loans could “cost the government billions of dollars by increasing unpaid loans.”

It’s not clear why Fleming thinks this. If a college graduate is out of work, it isn’t likely he would be repaying his loan under any circumstances. Defaults are expensive for taxpayers, so more flexible repayment plans help everyone. They work well in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia.

Income-contingent loans were originally Milton Friedman’s idea, and President Ronald Reagan was the first to implement them. Perhaps the government could be administering the loans better. That’s no excuse for people like Fleming to flout the facts.

On the whole, the president’s record on college education seems innocuous: some sensible, moderate, and long-overdue investments, and a few disappointments. That the president’s opponents are attacking him on contrived issues using weak arguments isn’t surprising either, but The Times’s is still valuable, if only for pointing out what the president has accomplished for college students.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund