Cal Poly makes daily efforts to appeal to prospective students, alumni and donors, but administrators could have a new critic to impress: The White House.
Higher education funding was the focus of President Barack Obama’s three-campus, two-state bus tour in late August, and — despite controversy in the higher education community — leaders at Cal Poly are optimistic about what a new plan from the president could mean for their university.
Obama suggested several changes to how colleges and students receive federal money during his campaign-style trip across New York and Pennsylvania. Among his proposals is one that would tie the financial aid Congress gives colleges to the value students receive for their tuition — the biggest “bang for their buck,” as the president put it.
“Not enough colleges have been working to figure out how do we control costs, how do we cut back on costs,” Obama said during a speech at the University of Buffalo. “So all this sticks it to students, sticks it to families, but also, taxpayers end up paying a bigger price.”
Some higher education analysts and experts, however, said the president’s plan fails to address underlying issues plaguing colleges and universities: lack of funding, ballooning tuition and more than $1 trillion of student loan debt. They have also attacked the ranking system, saying it could force colleges to fit a standardized norm counter to some schools’ missions.
The Obama administration has already established a “College Scorecard” system that measures colleges’ costs and graduation rates. Many expect the new affordability rankings, which Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expect to complete by 2015, will be similar to it.
Though the president has the authority to implement the system by himself, Congress will be able to decide whether to use it to determine how it distributes financial aid such as Pell Grants and Stafford Loans.
Cal Poly has fared “really well” in the existing scoring system, Provost Kathleen Enz Finken said. On the College Scorecard website, Cal Poly has a loan default rate of 2.8 percent, nearly 11 percentage points below the national average and its six-year graduation rate of 74.6 percent is near the top of the government’s scale.
These numbers and rankings, Enz Finken said, reflect the California State University’s original mission to be an affordable option for all students in the state. Though tuition in recent years has spiked to unprecedented levels, Cal Poly remains on par with average national costs for four-year public universities, Enz Finken said.
“We are, in my opinion, a very, very good cost for the value we provide,” she said. “We’re working very hard to maintain costs all across the board.”
Those outside San Luis Obispo are also recognizing Cal Poly’s value. Kiplinger, a Washington, D.C. publisher of business forecasts and personal finance advice, ranked Cal Poly No. 40 in its 2013 list of the best values of public colleges. In addition, Cal Poly took home its 21st consecutive “Best in the West” ranking from U.S. News and World Report for public masters-degree universities.
So what do Cal Poly’s numbers and rankings mean under Obama’s plan? If the president gets his way, schools that are ranked high on the new scale will begin to receive more financial aid for their students than colleges that have out-of-control tuition or whose students earn low wages after graduation. Enz Finken expects Cal Poly would do well if Congress enacts these changes.
But in addition to the proposed college oversight, Obama also called for more accountability on the backs of students receiving federal financial aid. Instead of giving a lump sum of money at the beginning of the year, the president wants to distribute it throughout the academic year and withhold financial aid dollars from those who are failing classes.
“Just as we’re expecting more from our schools that get funding from taxpayers, we’re going to have to expect more from students who get subsidies and grants from taxpayers,” Obama said to students during his speech at University of Buffalo, drawing a round of applause.
This specific part of Obama’s plan will require Congress’ approval, though the Education Department can pilot it at certain universities through an already existing budget for experimental education.
Both proposals seem to focus on accessibility for students, said Associated Students, Inc. President Jason Colombini. Though putting conditions on students’ financial aid could disqualify some from receiving money they need to pay for college, he is confident Cal Poly students perform well enough to stay relatively unaffected by the president’s proposal.
“I’d be cautionary about being too restrictive on GPA, but Cal Poly itself has a policy on getting students here through their education,” Colombini said. “That might go very well in line with what the president has in mind.”