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August 23, 2013 1:04 PM The Path to Obama’s College Cost Reforms

By Daniel Luzer

Yesterday President Barack Obama released his blueprint for college cost reforms, which aims to measure colleges on graduation rates and enrollment of low-income students, and reward or punish schools through federal financial aid based on their success on these new measures.

It’s not going to be an easy fix. As I pointed out yesterday, it’s not really one reform, but several, requiring alterations of many longstanding polices.

Rachel Fishman over at the New America Foundation has produced this helpful guide to the elements of President Obama’s higher education plan that require Congressional approval. Here’s the chart:

Pods

(Check out a clearer image here.) Green means Obama can do it on his own. Red means it’s got to go to the Hill. There’s a lot of red.

Making all borrowers eligible for Pay-as-You-Earn repayment plans (which will tie debt repayment to borrowers salaries), basing financial aid on college value, promoting improvement through a “race to the top” style fund for college reform, and rewarding (and punishing) colleges for results using Pell grants all have to go through Congress.

So, basically, all the hard stuff. And all of the things that would have the most impact on the amount students pay for a college education.

The changes the president can institute on his own, without Congressional approval, include things like enacting new college ratings before 2015, “using technology to redesign courses,” promoting dual enrollment, and “empowering students with information.

Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic argues that, because the most important elements of the plan require Congressional approval, this reform proposal is basically not happening. It is, as he puts it a “thoughtful plan to tame the rising cost of college that, should it ever reach Congress, will likely end up deader than the dead white men on a freshman English syllabus.”

While it’s damn well time to tie federal money spent on college to actual college performance, there will probably be bipartisan opposition to this plan. America’s largest and most influential colleges, together with community colleges, have built alliances with the Democrats that could prevent further regulation of the industry. For-profit colleges and their cronies in the GOP will also rise up to kill any change to their trusty federal revenue stream.

That’s awfully pessimistic, and it’s possible the president might have some tools in mind to bring crucial congressmen around to his cause. It’s a very ambitious and quite innovative plan to reform higher education. And it’s certainly time to start having a serious conversation about many of these recommendations. But we might be in for a long, nasty fight about this one.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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