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Administration pushes proposal to cap college tuition

Plan faces tough road in Congress

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2012

Shrugging off widespread criticism of its college tuition cap proposal, the Obama administration mounted a public-relations blitz Monday to sell the plan to students and university leaders.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts were among the White House officials and congressional Democrats who headlined events in Florida, Massachusetts and the District in a coordinated effort to build support for the idea of cutting off some federal financial aid to colleges and universities that continue to raise tuition each year.

The measure, the details of which have yet to be announced, was first outlined by President Obama in his State of the Union address two weeks ago and was immediately panned across the higher education spectrum.

House Republicans also bashed the proposal, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky told an audience of college presidents last week that it has virtually no chance of becoming law this year.

Despite its grim chances in Congress, the plan could still reap benefits for the White House, specialists say. It may help restore enthusiasm among college-age voters, a critical constituency for Mr. Obama's re-election effort. Their parents may view it as a real attempt to aid middle-class families struggling with how to pay for college.

Universities, having been publicly shamed for "jacking up" their rates each year, could relent to the administration's wishes and decide it is in their best interest to voluntarily reduce costs.

"Sometimes the threat of regulations can work as well as regulations themselves. Colleges might say, 'We better clean up our own house,' " said Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank. "I think [the administration] will keep talking about it, because this is an issue that resonates with voters. It's not just for young people. Keep in mind it's the parents that are paying for college. I think it's more of a middle-class issue than an age issue."

Critics of the proposal have two major complaints. College leaders and many Republicans believe the measure would represent an unprecedented federal intrusion into the higher education market by essentially instituting price controls.

Fiscal conservatives have also objected to the administration's push to give institutions more money, in the form of work-study program dollars and additional grants and loans for the neediest students, if they keep tuition below a certain threshold, which has yet to be defined.

Speaking at Florida State University on Monday, Mr. Biden brushed off concerns that the nation simply can't afford more federal education spending, calling the assembled students "the most incredible generation in American history."

"It's overwhelmingly in the national interest of the United States to get every qualified person to college," he said. "It's simple. The question is not whether we can afford these initiatives. The question is how could we do anything other than push these initiatives."

Mr. Biden conceded that federal higher education spending, such as the popular Pell Grant program, has played a role in driving up the cost of college, but he rejected the suggestion that government aid be cut.

"Government subsidies have impacted upon rising tuition costs," he said. "But if we went the free market route ... we would not have increased Pell Grants, and there would be 9 million fewer students in college today."

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