Students in over their heads with student loans may want to pay attention to new ideas coming from the Ford School of Public Policy this weekend.

The Public Policy School kicked off its two-and-a-half-day Conference on Student Loans yesterday with an address by University alum Roberto Rodríguez, special assistant to President Barack Obama for education policy. The focus of the conference is to better understand the effects and structure of student debt, as well as to spur research on the poorly understood topic.

Before joining the administration’s education team, Rodríguez worked on Capitol Hill as chief education counsel to former senator Ted Kennedy. During his time working with legislators, Rodríguez contributed to the development of landmark K-12 education programs such as the No Child Left Behind Act and worked on reauthorizing legislations like the Head Start program.

A video of the speech was simultaneously streamed on the school’s website and questions to Rodríguez were collected with #policytalks on Twitter. Audience members also submitted questions through paper.

Rodríguez’s address focused on the creation of a new college rating system mandated by the Obama administration. He proposed a rating that would include more reliable data for students about the personal economic risk and reward for individual colleges. It would also distribute federal financial aid to universities in proportion to the success of their graduates.

“Almost all the federal student aid that flows to colleges is given based on the number of students who enroll in that school,” Rodríguez said.

He added that more factors need to be taken into account for federal student-aid funding, especially the success of students after college. Rodríguez also said the federal government needs a better accountability system for the $150 billion in student aid that it distributes each year.

Rodríguez also discussed the value of a college education, noting that a large gap is forming between college graduates and those with only a high-school diploma.

“Gone is that economy of a quarter-century ago where a worker with a high school credential could make at least half of what a college graduate would earn,” Rodríguez said.

Though a college degree may be important in today’s society, Rodríguez said the nation’s higher education system is nowhere near perfect.

“Tuition and fees at our public four-year colleges is now more than three times higher than it was thirty years ago, and over this same period income has only risen 16 percent for middle class families,” Rodríguez said, adding that the average college student today accumulates more than $26,000 of debt by graduation.

The Obama administration’s postsecondary education plan, the 2020 College Attainment Goal, calls for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade. Rodríguez said in an interview after his address that the United States is currently sixteenth in world rankings, a fact that has been previously cited by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Rodríguez also commended the University for holding down tuition increases for this academic year, saying it was thanks in part to the state’s commitment to support higher education. The University’s Board of Regents approved a 1.1-percent increase in tuition this year, the lowest in more than a decade.

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