Obama’s new aid program will hurt more than help UH
President Barack Obama proposed a federal financial aid reform Thursday, planning to allocate funds based on the calculated value of an education from a given institution. Colleges that offer a lower tuition rate and a higher-quality education are slated to receive more funding if Congress passes the measure. In the meantime, institutions will be ranked by the financial need and ultimate debt of their students, as well as the graduation rates and earnings of said graduates.
The act also intends to keep student loan interest rates low and increase availability of work-study jobs. UH’s own Karl Ittmann, a History professor since 1989, wrote to the New York Times asserting that all possible cuts have been made and that the reformists are attempting to “vilify universities” rather than attack the problem at its core–the lack of funding.
Ittmann expressed his concern for the proposed university ranking system by comparing UH to Princeton, where he taught previously.
He said that at Princeton students had “virtually unlimited resources”, and almost none worked. Conversely, at UH, “many students have to work, often full-time, or reduce their course loads to afford to take classes.” As for the criteria on which the universities will be judged, he said, “I am not confident that a ranking system will be able to account for how these differences influence statistical outcomes.”
Indeed, a ranking system intended to compare all universities to one another seems too wide a lens and is bound to miss the detail of the picture.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the overall graduation rate at UH is at 46 percent. This creates something of a catch-22, since under the proposed program, the university’s low percentage would be a mark against it.
But isn’t the rate so low because the funding is inadequate in the first place? Many students are forced to drop out because they aren’t receiving enough aid to stay in school without working as well. In this way, the ranking system has the potential to create a truly vicious cycle that will harm students and faculty alike.
Obama said in his address, “not enough colleges have been working to figure out how do we control costs, how do we cut back on costs? So all this sticks it to students, sticks it to families, but also, taxpayers end up paying a bigger price.” But according to Ittmann said this is just an attempt at shifting the blame. “In order to function, universities have to increase tuition, which states have supported. Only when they faced a political backlash did they then turn around and attack universities for raising tuition.”
He asserts that not only are cost cuts being made, but made on the wrong things.
“Faculty salaries (for non-administrators) are flat in real terms, our benefits have been cut and there are fewer full-time faculty,” Ittmann said.
Ittmann believes that “we are failing to reach our potential due to misplaced priorities,” and that we would be better off cutting from athletics programs and administrative overhead.
Working in UH’s favor, however, is the number of low-income students in attendance. According to the White House fact sheet for the proposal, the enrollment of Pell-eligible students is also vital to a given university’s future aid allocation. Fortunately, 46 percent of undergraduates are currently receiving Pell grants as well as other federal grants. At this juncture, though, there is no telling whether that will be enough to offset poor graduation rates, should the measure pass.
Overall, though well intended, the reform is counterintuitive in many ways. Ittmann said, “Most public universities have been on a diet for decades… If schools had better funding, then tuition increases could be moderated.” Just as much as the program is set to reward schools for keeping costs for students low, it is set to punish the schools that can’t afford to.
The less aid a university receives, the more it will need to pass those expenses on to students — on and on until a fairly reasonable education is forced to become exorbitant. At the closing of his address, Obama said, “We’re going to keep fighting to make sure that this remains a country where, if you work hard and study hard and are responsible, you are rewarded… here in America you can make it if you try.” Hopefully, that will continue to be enough.
Opinion columnist Katie Wian is an English junior and may be reached at [email protected]