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March 08, 2013 2:40 PM Why Obama Can’t Make College Cheaper

By Daniel Luzer

Remember President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce the cost of college by tying federal education funds to efforts to reduce tuition growth?

Yea, neither does anyone else.

Back in January last year President Obama proposed an interesting plan to bring college costs down: “tie colleges’ eligibility for campus-based aid programs — Perkins loans, work-study jobs and supplemental grants for low-income students — to the institutions’ success in improving affordability and value for students,” in the words of Tamar Lewin at the New York Times. What happened?

It’s been a year, and he has been reelected, and this plan has basically gone nowhere. This is particularly interesting given that the idea seems relatively sensible, and wouldn’t seem to face any ideological opposition from Republicans.

And yet, as Timothy Noah at the New Republic explains:

Practically speaking, the president was asking Congress to impose price controls on a sector that accounts for 3 percent of GDP. But in an election year, the media (exempting the trade press) was primarily interested in spotlighting those policies likeliest to get a rise out of Obama’s opponent, and Mitt Romney wasn’t much interested in education issues. Later, when Obama revived his call for tuition price controls in subsequent speeches (including his convention speech and this year’s State of the Union), the press downplayed what was then “old” news. Another obstacle was the press’s (accurate) perception of Obama as, in general, a strong supporter of higher education—doubling, for instance, funding for low-income Pell grants. That Obama also favored punitive action against some colleges was the sort of complication reporters don’t easily digest.

America just didn’t seem to care. Republicans, with their historical interest in curbing government waste, might rather like the proposal, but it failed to generate traction. The Democratically-controlled Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) looked into Obama’s proposal, too. But lobbying by the higher education industry, and HELP’s own preoccupation with for-profit colleges,meant that the committee merely applauded the goals and said the proposals required “more deliberation in Congress.”

This is actually pretty unfortunate, because the proposal makes sense (indeed, it’s odd that we currently give out federal education funds designed to get low-income Americans to college without expecting colleges to keep college affordable) and will hurt no one. But it’s not that sexy an idea. Noah:

A well-established principle of political science is that a diffuse, unfunded majority typically has little chance against an organized, moneyed minority—even when the president sticks up for the former. If Obama wants to succeed, he’ll need to help fashion something resembling a political movement. Without one, all he’s got is a talking point.

For sure. But part of the problem may be that while college students themselves are a natural group of supporters for this reform idea, they wouldn’t directly benefit from policy changes to curb the growth of education costs. Even if the proposals were implemented today, they would merely ensure that college students in the future wouldn’t pay more than they do now.

It’s hard to rally around a slogan like “tie federal aid to efforts to improve affordability for today’s elementary school kids.”

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