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Editorial: Obama and college aid

Withholding aid for being unaffordable

Published: Monday, February 13, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02

An idea raised by the Obama administration could have interesting implications for the University of New Hampshire.

On Jan. 27, Obama warned a crowd in Michigan that he was willing to withhold federal aid from the nation's colleges and universities if they can't keep their education affordable. That threat was expected to be fleshed out in the president's budget that was released yesterday, according to an article in the Boston Globe.

"We are putting colleges on notice," Obama said on Jan. 27. "You can't assume that you'll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can't stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down."

Obama's results are of particular interest in this state and for this university, which has one of the highest tuition rates in the country. UNH, unfortunately, is likely further along the college-is-getting-less-affordable continuum than many other places. Which means we're more dependent on reform within higher education coming along sooner rather than later. But is Obama's idea a good one?

First of all, it's important to note that the president's plan wouldn't affect federal aid that goes directly to students. This is the vast majority of federal aid currently – more than $140 billion in the form of grants and loans, according to the Associated Press.

Instead, Obama's plan deals with $3 billion in "campus-based aid" that flows through college administrators to students, according to the Associated Press. He would increase that amount to $10 billion and distribute it to reward schools that hold down costs.

On the surface, UNH would be at a disadvantage compared to other schools, since it receives such miniscule financial support from the state. New Hampshire already had the lowest per capita spending on higher education before the state legislature cut the expenditure by 50 percent last year.

A federal program that failed to take this fact into its algorithm would only further UNH's disadvantage and make it harder for the university to remain competitive.

Critics of Obama's program say it's a campaign move, not a legitimate policy. To make a more useful criticism, it's reform at a small-scale. The federal government's influence on college administrations is less than you'd think, since aid goes directly to students. And when it comes to UNH specifically, the proposal could make Washington seem an awful lot like Concord.

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