Student Loans | Will President Obama’s Blueprint Cut College Costs?

January 31, 2012 – 4:59 am

Mark Kantrowitz is the founder of the Web sites , and . He regularly answers reader questions on The Choice . Readers can post comments of their own at the end of this essay.

In his State of the Union address , President Obama announced several proposals to make college more affordable . These included doubling the number of federal work-study program jobs over five years, a one-year extension of low interest rates on certain federal student loans and a permanent extension of the American Opportunity Tax Credit. President Obama also “put colleges on notice,” telling the colleges that if they can’t stop tuition from going up, the financing they get from taxpayers each year will go down. The president also announced initiatives to help families make informed decisions concerning college costs and quality.

More money for college is better than none. As a nation, we must put a priority on increasing federal and state investment in higher education. Maintaining the status quo or making slight tweaks to student aid financing is not enough.

Yet a key concern is that increases in some student aid programs may come at the expense of cuts in other more effective student aid programs.

It is unclear how President Obama plans on paying for increases in student aid financing while Congress concentrates on cost-cutting. Congress cut $8 billion a year out of the Pell grant program last year by ending the year-round Pell grant program, which allowed students in accelerated degree programs to get two Pell grants in a single year. Congress reduced the income threshold at which a student qualifies for a full Pell grant from $32,000 to $23,000. This cuts the Pell grants by $1,100 to $1,700 for nearly 14 percent of Pell grant recipients. Additional cuts are looming on the horizon.

The tight federal budgets yield a zero-sum game, where increases in one form of federal student aid force cuts in other forms of student aid. Adding 700,000 more federal work-study jobs over five years will cost more than $1 billion a year.

But how will the Obama administration pay for a one-year extension of the 3.4 percent interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduate students? Approximately 7.4 million students will borrow about $3,500 in subsidized Stafford loans on average, costing the federal government more than $7 billion. The permanent extension of the American Opportunity Tax Credit will add several billion dollars more a year in tax expenditures. If the Obama administration doesn’t find savings elsewhere in the budget, these spending increases will force cuts in the Pell grant program, causing declines in Bachelor’s degree attainment by low-income students. That would be a bad bargain.

The risk is that the proposals for increasing student aid financing may be little more than a shell game, where the federal government gives with one hand and takes back with the other. For example, President Obama’s proposal for a one-year delay in the doubling of interest on the subsidized Stafford loan program will be coupled with increases in interest rates on the Perkins loan program. The re-engineering of the Perkins loan program will increase the interest rate on the Perkins loan from 5 percent to 6.8 percent and transform the subsidized Perkins loan into an unsubsidized Stafford loan. (This will save students some money, by shifting borrowing from higher-cost private Student Loans to lower-cost federal education loans. But it still involves increasing some interest rates to reduce others). Shuffling the deck doesn’t yield a net gain if there is no improvement in college graduation rates or other public policy objectives.

If the federal government can pay for cutting the interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans in half, then why was it necessary to cut the average Pell grant? Changing the interest rates and subsidized interest benefits on student loans has no impact on college access and completion rates. In contrast, the Pell grant program enables low-income students to enroll in college and to graduate. Cutting Pell grant financing forces low-income students to borrow more, shift enrollment to lower-cost colleges or drop out of college. Increasing the interest rate is a better alternative than cutting the Pell grant.

President Obama’s proposal to provide colleges with an incentive to keep tuition affordable will have a modest impact on tuition inflation. The proposal will base a college’s allocation of federal campus-based aid on whether the college keeps net tuition affordable, limits tuition increases and helps low-income students to enroll and graduate. But the $10 billion in campus-based financing represents only about 6 percent of all federal student aid financing and the allocation formula is complicated. The prospect of losing this financing may force some colleges to increase tuition even faster to compensate for the loss of campus-based aid financing.

There are limits to the ability of colleges to control costs. The consumer inflation rate has little to do with increases in college costs. College costs are largely driven by increases in the number of faculty and staff, increases in salaries, increases in facility costs, energy costs, equipment costs and health care costs, increases in institutional financial aid financing and decreases in federal and state financing. For example, if a college has a discount rate of 37 percent, the college must increase tuition by $1.59 to net $1 in additional revenue. This contributes to college tuition increasing faster than inflation by adding a multiplier effect.

President Obama’s proposal to create a mandatory “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet” and “College Scorecard”, on the other hand, will do more to constrain increases in college costs. This standardization of college cost and financial aid disclosures will provide families with clear, correct and comparable information about the real bottom-line cost of college.

This will help them make informed decisions concerning the tradeoffs between college affordability and other factors in college choice. More families will choose high quality but lower-cost colleges, forcing colleges to cut costs while maintaining or improving quality.

Now it’s your turn, Choice readers. Tell us your opinion on the president’s proposal, or at least Mr. Kantrowitz’s analysis of it, by using the box below .



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