Obama college plan needs reality check

President Obama’s plan to link financial aid to college “value” will penalize lower-income students for attending colleges with low graduation rates and low earnings for graduates, argue two analysts, who call for a “reality check.”

Comparing college graduation rates is meaningless, unless students’ academic ability and other characteristics are taken into account.

Best bang-for-buck college is Amherst?

Washington Monthly‘s 2013 College Guide and Rankings “asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country.”

Are they educating low-income students, or just catering to the  affluent? Are they improving the quality of their teaching, or ducking accountability for it? Are they trying to become more productive—and if so, why is average tuition rising faster than health care costs?

The Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Colleges are topped by Amherst: Nearly everyone graduates and the net price is only $843 after financial aid. Then come two City University of New York schools, Cal State Fullerton and the University of Florida.

Here’s are some stand-outs in value, with more on how the Monthly rates college value.

Why college costs so much

Growing federal subsidies have inflated the cost of college, economist Richard Vedder tells the Wall Street Journal.  ”It gives every incentive and every opportunity for colleges to raise their fees.”

Colleges build luxury dorms and recreation centers, says Vedder, an Ohio University professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. They hire “administrators to manage their bloated bureaucracies and proliferating multicultural programs.”

“Every college today practically has a secretary of state, a vice provost for international studies, a zillion public relations specialists,” Mr. Vedder says. “My university has a sustainability coordinator whose main message, as far as I can tell, is to go out and tell people to buy food grown locally. . . . Why? What’s bad about tomatoes from Pennsylvania as opposed to Ohio?”

Federal spending hasn’t made college more accessible for low-income students or improved graduation rates, says Vedder. Only 7 percent of recent graduates come from the bottom-income quartile compared with 12 percent in 1970 when federal aid was scarce.

President Obama’s proposal to tie federal aid to graduation rates, and other performance metrics, will spur grade inflation, Vedder predicts.

“I can tell you right now, having taught at universities forever, that universities will do everything they can to get students to graduate,” he chuckles. “If you think we have grade inflation now, you ought to think what will happen. If you breathe into a mirror and it fogs up, you’ll get an A.”

Online education could reduce costs, says Vedder, but don’t expect the government to take the lead.

“First of all, the Department of Education, to use K-12 as an example, has been littered with demonstration projects, innovation projects, proposals for new ways to do things for decades. And what has come out? Are American students learning any more today than a generation ago? Are they doing so at lower cost than a generation ago? No.”

Government can help by getting out of the way, Vedder says.

Many professors are “disappointed” by President Obama’s higher ed plan, reports Inside Higher Ed.

. . . the plan focuses on certain measurable student outcomes – such as graduation rates – but would do little to ensure actual student learning.

Some called it a No Child Left Behind for higher education.

Linking student aid to graduation rates and earnings would encourage colleges to reject disadvantaged students and humanities majors with low earning potential, writes Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution.

Obama: Link student aid to college value

President Obama proposes rating colleges on tuition, student loan debt, graduation rates and graduates’ earnings so students can shop for the best value. Eventually, Congress will be asked to reward higher-performing colleges with larger Pell Grants and lower-cost loans for their students.

College costs will continue to rise, predicts an economist.

Find the top college — for you

Stanford is America’s top college, followed by Pomona, Princeton, Yale and Columbia, according to Forbes‘ new rankings.

The magazine also lets college aspirants input a grade point average, SAT/ACT score and annual cost to find a “college you can get into and afford.”  Using the total cost — not the average net cost after financial aid — is liable to scare away all but the wealthy — and those planning to attend a military academy.  (West Point ranks #7.)

College is free for 5th-year students

Oregon and Colorado students can spend a “fifth year” in high school taking free community college courses leading to an associate degree.

How the elite college students eat

Steve the hasher was serving our table in the college dorm dining hall.”Hey, Steve,” said one of my table mates. “You’ve got your thumb in the mashed potatoes.”

Steve said, loudly, “I’m the only guy here who will admit he masturbates.” Then he plopped the bowl on the table.

I skipped the mashed potatoes that evening.

Dining at Stanford has gone upscale, according to How Students Eat Now in Stanford Magazine.

During the past decade, Stanford has built one dining commons and renovated older ones, replacing “cook and park” steam tables with stations where items are made to order. They’ve recruited chefs with a flair for vegetarian and ethnic cuisines, as well as experts in food safety, nutrition and allergen-free cooking.

At one dining area, students can watch their meals being prepared through a glass wall, then go upstairs to browse “an expansive salad bar topped with white ceramic bowls of organic oranges.”

On the back wall, a pizza oven blazes. Whole chickens, rubbed with pungent fresh oregano, twirl slowly on the rotisserie.

The executive chef, David Iott, worked at Ritz-Carlton hotels before coming to Stanford.

There are no plastic cafeteria trays, except upon request. Instead, diners stroll around holding china plates, as they would at a hotel buffet. Hormone-free skim milk, fair-trade Starbucks coffee and Crysalli Artisan Water are on tap. A Pepsi machine is tucked away in a corner. “We have to have that,” Iott says, a bit sadly. Then he brightens as he points out roasted organic carrots and an array of miniature decorated cheesecakes.

An elite university needs high-quality food service, says Eric Montell, executive director of Stanford Dining. The magazine adds, “From New Haven to Berkeley, American universities are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into environmentally sustainable residences and dining facilities.”

I thought universities were trying to control costs so college will be financially sustainable for students and their parents. All that overpriced organic food and Artisan Water will turn into student debt.

Stanford undergrads pay $1,700 to $2,000 per quarter — up to $6,000 a year — for their miniature cheesecakes and Starbucks coffee. That doesn’t cover the full cost. Of course, most students receive financial aid to defray the cost of tuition, room and board, but fancy eats means the aid won’t go quite as far.

The greatest food in human history is the McDouble cheeseburger, writes Kyle Smith in the New York Post, quoting a Freakonomics commenter. McDonald’s McDouble is nutritious (390 calories, half a daily serving of protein) and usually sells for $1.

Obama vows college cost controls

President Obama vowed to “shake up” higher education and “tackle rising costs,” in a speech on the economy that stressed college affordability for middle-class families.

A bipartisan student loan bill that will lower interest rates – at least for now — has passed the Senate and is expected to become law. The compromise ties interest rates to the government’s cost of borrowing.

Parents are spending less of their income on their children’s college costs and relying more on grants, scholarships, financial aid — and frugality — Sallie Mae reports.

A MOOC education

To be a superprofessor (a MOOC prof) is an act of aggression, writes Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State history professor. Massive open online courses aren’t as educational as traditional courses, even if they’re cheaper, he argues.

Being a Luddite is an act of absurdity, responds Matthew Ladner, who believes in creative destruction.

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No community college, no future

Without a community college, Erie, Pennsylvania keeps losing jobs and laid-off workers can’t afford to retrain. Industry is disinvesting.

Student aid fuels tuition inflation.