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Obama proposal may make college more affordable

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

Gladys Sanchez knows that some people’s top concern about attending college is the large amount of debt they might take on.

The 24-year-old Oak Park resident is a student at both Kishwaukee College and Northern Illinois University. She’s been a student trustee on the Kishwaukee College Board, and has confronted many of the issues facing college students today. One issue she hopes colleges and universities will help students with is financial awareness. 

“A lot of students go into debt because they’re not aware of the financial aspects [of college],” she said.

Making colleges and universities more affordable and accessible for students has become one of President Barack Obama’s priorities for higher education. In 2015, he plans for the federal government to establish a ranking system that will judge schools based on how affordable and accessible they make education. Schools would also be judged on outcomes such as graduation rates and earnings. 

Students would be able to use the list to make choices about which school they want to attend, and a school’s ranking also could determine how much federal aid students receive.

Sedgwick Harris, vice president of student services for Kishwaukee College, said the proposal seems as if it would hold higher education institutions accountable for the education they offer students. He said there is a need for people to have a college education so they can have the skill sets for jobs and many of them fall back on community colleges to afford an education. 

“From what I’ve seen of so many of those students is [they’re] not ending up in professions and looking to the community college setting for help,” he said. 

The federal initiative calls for the Department of Education to establish a ratings system for colleges nationwide allowing students to comparison shop when choosing a school, while also encouraging colleges to improve. 

Once the ratings system is established, it would be used to award more financial aid to universities and colleges that are performing better than others. The plan would encourage colleges to enroll and graduate more low- and moderate-income students. Students who attend a high-performing college could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans as a result. 

Harris said he doesn’t completely agree with this part of the plan, which might create an imbalance with awarding financial aid to colleges and universities. 

“I understand the concept, but I’m still sitting back and wondering how it will come together because if the [four-year institution] is in a rural area and their tax base or endowment is not as much as larger institutions, then they are going to die,” he said. 

One way he sees Obama’s proposal working is if colleges are given the resources to perform better. 

According to NIU officials, the university has earned high marks for social mobility, or recruiting and graduating low-income students from Washington Monthly’s College Guide and Rankings.

With social mobility, NIU ranked 131 out of 284 national universities, according to the rankings. The category measures a school’s commitment to low-income students. 

Obama’s plan could slow rising tuition costs, but it could also add burdensome reporting requirements for schools already struggling with their finances, according to NIU officials. 

NIU President Doug Baker has said the university aims to make the education it offers more affordable by managing its finances and providing merit- and need-based assistance. 

“Last year, NIU and our foundation provided undergraduate students with about $25 million in scholarships, waivers and grants,” Baker said in a news release. “Increasing merit aid has been and will continue to be a priority, and we are thankful to those whose generosity is helping to make this possible.” 

Although the college ratings system is meant to help students make value comparisons between different colleges, Sanchez, the student trustee for Kishwaukee College, said she thinks colleges should offer students more help in choosing a major once they attend those schools. 

“I think retention happens when you help out students with the classes they need,” she said. 

Obama’s plan also seeks to make student debt more manageable by allowing all current student borrowers to cap their federal student loan payments at 10 percent of their monthly income. The Department of Education would help borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments or borrowers with higher-than-average debt learn about and enroll in the Pay As You Earn and Income-based Repayment plans. 

Colleges and universities should make students aware of their options when it comes to taking out loans so they can make smarter decisions, Sanchez said. She said a lot of freshmen students go to colleges and universities not realizing how expensive they can be. 

Harris said Kishwaukee College offers financial literacy programs for students and tries to strategically help them as much as possible. He said the federal government can make a good impact by making sure monies are available for students who qualify for aid and make sure loans have reasonable interest rates. 

“That’s what hurts students when they get out of school,” he said. 

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