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Obama 'putting colleges on notice' on high tuition

By Kimberly Hefling

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 27 2012 3:02 p.m. MST

In Ann Arbor, he soaked up the cheers of students as he outlined the agenda from his State of the Union speech, and gave a shout out to the popular quarterback of the school's football team. And Obama used the college-aid matter to put the onus for action on Republicans, again painting them as obstructionists and himself as the fighter for the middle class.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of University of Michigan, said schools should be challenged to find ways to restrain costs, but they can't continue to make up for state cuts. Money for state universities in Michigan dropped by 15 percent in this year's state budget, and many — including the University of Michigan — raised tuition to help make up for the lost support.

Obama challenged states to be more responsible, too.

"He recognizes every part of it," Coleman said. "That's what was so powerful about the speech."

Kevin Carey, policy director at the independent Education Sector think tank, said higher education leaders will surely detest Obama's plan even if they do not say so directly.

"Instead, they'll work behind the scenes to kill it," Carey predicted.

University of Washington President Mike Young said Obama showed he did not understand how the budgets of public universities work. Young said the total cost to educate college students in Washington state, which is paid for by both tuition and state government dollars, has actually gone down because of efficiencies on campus. While universities are tightening costs, the state is cutting their subsidies and authorizing tuition increases to make up for the loss.

"They really should know better," Young said. "This really is political theater of the worst sort."

Obama also wants to create a "Race to the Top" competition in higher education similar to the one his administration used on lower grades. He wants to encourage states to make better use of higher education dollars in exchange for $1 billion in prize money. A second competition called "First in the World" would encourage innovation to boost productivity on campuses.

Obama is also pushing for the creation of more tools to help students determine which colleges and universities have the best value.

Michigan was Obama's last stop on a five-day trip to sell his State of the Union agenda in politically important states.

The White House has begun facing criticism from Republicans and daily questions from reporters about the blurring of Obama's governing and campaign-style events. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Obama went before Michigan students to promote a policy idea.

Said Carney: "We're not going to tell people not to applaud."

Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Julie Pace in Washington, David Runk in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Donna Gordon Blankinship in Seattle contributed to this story. Hefling contributed from Washington.

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