Though President Barack Obama’s remarks Friday morning were met with unbridled enthusiasm from a majority of the 4,000 people who packed Al Glick Field House to see him, the higher education policies he unveiled in the speech faced scrutiny and trepidation from higher education leaders and experts.
During his address, the president unveiled a handful of policies aimed at making college more affordable. These projects include an expansion of federal aid to universities that would be tied to tuition costs, a Race to the Top competition for states to earn federal dollars and a higher education report card that would require universities to release more information about their financial aid offerings.
Several public university presidents across the country, including University President Mary Sue Coleman, expressed concern that the Obama administration was tying federal aid to tuition levels as states continue to cut higher education appropriations, creating budget shortfalls for many public institutions.
After Obama’s speech, Coleman said she supported the president’s vision, but added that it would be impossible to achieve without additional state funding. The state government cut funding to Michigan’s 15 public universities by 15 percent last year under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
“What isn’t sustainable is having the state every year cut, cut, cut, cut,” Coleman said. “Then you can’t make it up, without lowering quality.”
The tuition-based plan Obama introduced on Friday would increase the amount of directly administered federal aid offered to $10 billion — up from its current $3 billion. In total though, the amount of federal aid affected by Obama’s new proposals is minimal since a majority of the $140 billion in federal financial aid is administered as grants or loans that are already given directly to students.
Stephen DesJardins, director of the University’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, teaches a graduate course in higher education policy and watched and analyzed Obama’s speech with his students in class on Friday.
DesJardins said it could be difficult for the administration to implement such wide reaching policies because, in reality, the higher education industry is quite nuanced. He added that the federal government has little control over institutions of higher education.
“The federal government’s lever, their policy lever, is the power of the purse,” DesJardins said. “They really have very little leverage other than that on institutions, especially in a state like Michigan, where institutions have constitutional autonomy. Like the University of Michigan, no one can tell the University of Michigan how to set their tuition rate. The Board of Regents figures it out.”
Still, DesJardins said his master’s students questioned the actual mechanism of how Obama’s plans would be implemented, especially since they would all need to be approved by Congress.
Though Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told reporters on a conference call Friday that the “administration is very committed to doing whatever we can even in the absence of congressional action,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One Friday afternoon that Obama’s tuition proposals are “long-term” plans.
“All the things that he discussed in these past three days are his absolute top priorities,” Carney said. “But the thing that he focuses on more than any other every day is economic growth and job creation.”
DesJardins added that his class questioned how Obama has heavily credited a college education to improving the economy. While DesJardins said a college education undoubtedly allows people to get better-paying jobs, he added there’s value in a liberal arts education in and of itself.
“They were worried about how tightly he had linked the idea of education, and some instrumental goal, the instrumental goal being, get a job,” DesJardins said.
DesJardins said the students were also disappointed that Obama’s speech focused on several other issues — like manufacturing, job creation and the auto industry — aside from higher education.
“The first thing to come out of their mouth was, ‘Great campaign speech,’” DesJardins said. “It seemed like the first order was, this seems like a campaign speech, and then the second or third order was that there is this education policy written into this too.”
Obama’s visit to the University reaffirmed Michigan’s status as a swing state in November’s election. According to a Detroit Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll taken last week, Obama led former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 48 percent to 40 percent in a poll of 600 voters. Romney led the president 46 percent to 41 percent in the same poll taken in November.
The Obama campaign itself has also acknowledged Michigan’s importance in the 2012 race. In a video posted on its campaign site, Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, showed six different combinations of states Obama could win to reclaim the presidency. In each scenario, Michigan was included as a state Obama needed to win.
— Daily Staff Reporter Sydney Berger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.