President Obama's plan to withhold some financial aid from universities that "jack up" tuition rates each year is being panned across the higher education spectrum, and House Republicans appear poised to kill it before it ever gets off the ground.
The proposal, first mentioned in last week's State of the Union address, would set a cap on tuition growth each year, and institutions that exceed that threshold would be denied federal dollars for work-study programs and additional money for loans and grants aimed at the neediest students.
Colleges that stay within the administration's tuition parameters, which have yet to be firmly established, could get bigger payouts from the federal government.
University presidents, worried that their tuition rates will soon be set by the White House, were reassured Tuesday that the plan is likely going nowhere this year.
"Anything he proposes needs to be approved by the Congress. I don't see that taking place," Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told college leaders gathered in Washington for the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Mr. Obama "threatened to reduce federal aid to colleges and universities unless they reduced or kept their tuitions in tow. That's not the job of the president of the United States," Mr. Rogers said. "What you charge for tuition is your business. That's going to vary for a variety of reasons. I respect and the federal government ought to respect your sovereignty in that area. It's your decision."
Mr. Rogers' remarks were met with raucous applause from the crowd, comprised of the heads of private institutions including small religious schools and larger, better-known colleges such as Wake Forest, Rice and New York University.
Many university officials outlined their own plans to lower costs, developed and implemented long before Mr. Obama's speech. William Peace University, a small North Carolina liberal arts school, plans to drop tuition by 7.5 percent in the fall, saving the average student about $2,000 per year. Hardin-Simmons University, a private Baptist school in Texas, guarantees students that their tuition rates won't increase for their entire college careers.
"We want to play ball. We want to cooperate," said Philip W. Eaton, president of Seattle Pacific University. "But at the same time, [the administration's proposal] is a crosswind that we just don't need right now."
Mr. Eaton suggested that Mr. Obama is seeking to paint major colleges and universities as greedy and set himself up as a savior by forcing them to keep tuition rates low.
"It's an exceedingly populist message. Politically, it plays very well," he said. "It's quite clear to me that he doesn't understand our business."
David Trickett, president and CEO of Colorado's Iliff School of Theology, said the plan looks like a piece of the administration's "agenda" to acquire greater control over American higher education.
Other college presidents called it an attempt to institute "price controls" and voiced concerns that, if the proposal is adopted, Mr. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan may seek even greater authority over the sector.
Faced with a growing backlash, the White House is now casting its plan as a discussion starter, not a list of demands.
Zakiya Smith, senior adviser for education with the White House Domestic Policy Council, told the NAICU conference that the administration is open to adjustments.
"We don't yet have all the details. We didn't come up with a bill that has every specific detail laid down from beginning to end," she said. "We thought the best thing to do would be to lay out a blueprint, lay out principles, and then get feedback on how best to make it into something concrete."
While many universities have publicly bashed the plan, others have remained silent.
Mr. Obama's alma mater, Columbia University, had no comment when contacted Tuesday by The Washington Times. A spokesman for Harvard University, where Mr. Obama attended law school, did not respond to a request for comment.
To the relief of most in the higher-education community, the administration's proposal, in its current form, does not touch the popular Pell Grant program, which doles out about $35 billion per year to low-income students with a maximum yearly award of $5,550.
Pell spending, awarded on the basis of financial need, has more than doubled since Mr. Obama took office.
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Ben Wolfgang is a national reporter for The Washington Times. Before coming to the Times, he spent four years as a political reporter in Pennsylvania. His focus is on education and science policy. Ben lives in southeast D.C. and has played guitar in several bands while still in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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