The fourth quarter of the Obama presidency has been relatively active when it comes to higher education. Last year alone, the Administration announced a proposal to make two years of community college tuition-free, finalized and released a treasure trove of data on earnings and loan repayment data by college as a substitute for its once-vaunted plans for a College Ratings system, came out with a Student Aid Bill of Rights, and issued regulations intended to streamline the confusing set of student loan repayment options. And as with other issues, the President has often announced his vision for higher education during the State of the Union speech—from the community college proposal to a famous quote about putting high-priced, low-value colleges “on notice.”
To this point, the Obama higher education platform has followed a predictable pattern—pushing for investments in grant aid and ways to lower the price of college for students, followed by initiatives try to hold colleges’ feet to the fire on issues of cost, debt, and value. It’s clear that the President views the lack of college affordability as a function of three things: inadequate public investment (thus, free community college and expansions in Pell Grants), inadequate consumer information and protection (thus, ratings and repayment data), and inadequate belt-tightening by colleges themselves (thus, evergreen incentive funds to improve productivity and efficiency, as well as putting colleges “on notice”). Throw in tweaks to income-based repayment plans and you have a general sense of how this Administration, absent Congressional action, thinks the higher education system should function and which incentives to embed within it.