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Fresno State professor weighs in on Obama’s new higher ed plan

President Barack Obama on Thursday unveiled a plan to overhaul the yardstick used to rank public and private universities nationwide and reform the student financial aid system.

Under the proposal, colleges would be divided into peer groups and ranked based on affordability, access for low-income students and graduation rates.

The financial aid piece — which would require a green light from Congress — would tie federal aid dollars to colleges that perform best on the new scorecard.

I talked with Jeffrey Cummins, an associate professor of political science at Fresno State, about the proposal — and the likelihood that lawmakers will get on board. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

Q: The idea is to hold universities more accountable, would this plan do that?

A: Certainly they would respond and try and bring up the metrics to determine financial aid. However, would they get on board? I think there’s going to be a lot of resistance to it, especially from schools that are going to have problems with the metrics that they use. To give you an example, if you have a college or university with a lot of low-income students, or in an area where the jobs available are sparse, they are going to have a harder time measuring up to their peers.

Q: What could this mean for a university like Fresno State?

A: Fresno State has lower graduation rates than some of the other (California State University) schools and that’s because we tend to have a lot of first generation and low-income college students. And we know they tend to have lower graduation rates than middle and upper income students. So on the metric of graduation rates, we wouldn’t fare as well.

Q: Congress found a resolution on student loan interest rate legislation this summer, but lawmakers have had a tough time finding a middle ground on many other issues. Do you foresee legislators agreeing on this measure?

A: I could see some bipartisan support for this in Congress. There has been a lot of concern about rising tuition across the country, and actually, I could see more support coming from Republicans than Democrats. What we might be seeing is Obama trying to appeal to some of the Republicans in the House who have blocked other types of legislation who might be more open to these types of changes in the education system. I could see the Democrats being more resistant.

Q: Why is that?

A: Democrats are more tuned in, or more supportive, of making higher education accessible to as many people as possible … to the extent that this reduces and holds recipients of federal funding accountable, Republicans would be in favor of it.

Q: Who wins and who loses?

A: It’s hard to say if there would be winners and losers until you see how the formula is developed and which types of schools are likely to be penalized. To what extent does it make federal loans less available to students? I don’t think we would see that until it’s implemented.

Q: We’ve seen the yearly rankings from Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report. How would the new measurements stack up?

A: I have seen other rankings where they take into consideration debt coming out of colleges and affordability and the best value. This is kind of what they are moving toward, best value. I don’t necessarily think this is that entirely new.

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