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Faust Criticizes Obama's Financial Aid Proposal

By Nikita Kansra and Samuel Y. Weinstock, Crimson Staff Writers

University President Drew G. Faust criticized President Barack Obama’s proposal to tie federal financial aid to government-created college rankings, a legislative goal that Obama has championed as a key step to making college more affordable.

“One of the general and widespread responses in higher education to this proposal has focused on what are we trying to measure and how [we] understand what a good education is,” Faust said in an interview with The Crimson last month. “And some of the kinds of criteria that have been identified are quite troubling to many of us.”

Obama’s proposal, intended to alleviate student debt and make colleges accountable for their costs, involves rating and ranking peer institutions based on tuition levels, graduation rates, graduate debt and earnings, proportion of low-income students, and other factors. From there, pending the passage of legislation in Congress, the rankings would determine the proportion of federal financial aid—in the form of grants and loans–that is disbursed to colleges.

In a speech in August, Obama said that he hoped to begin rating colleges before the 2015 school year and attaching federal aid to those ratings in 2018.

Calling the ratings approach “misguided,” Faust said that evaluating colleges based on the initial earnings and job placement of graduates would undermine the push for college graduates to enter less lucrative fields, such as education and public service. She added that the value of an undergraduate education may only emerge later in a graduate’s life, with many jobs occupied by today’s generation of college graduates yet to be created.

“We should be thinking more about an education of quality, substance, and purpose,” she said. “Not simply about vocation.”

She added that a liberal arts education in particular has value that is not measurable with the metrics that Obama has proposed using.

“I’m a firm believer in the liberal arts...commitments to citizenship [are] part of that framework of education that I don’t think we can easily translate into a measurement,” Faust said.

In addition to Faust and other leaders in higher education who have criticized Obama’s plan, many lawmakers have also opposed the plan. It would likely face an uphill battle in Congress. And even if the plan were to become law, it may not affect Harvard and many of its peer institutions.

In February 2012, Vice President Joe Biden told The Crimson that a system tying federal funding to financial aid would be unlikely to affect Harvard, considering the University’s large financial aid gifts.

“You’re safe at Harvard,” Biden said on a conference call.

Nevertheless, a Harvard spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement that the University administration would keep an eye on any relevant legislative updates.

“We are closely following developments in Washington and speaking with policymakers to ensure that any new federal system of ratings reflects the full range of educational benefits a student receives when he or she pursues a college degree,” the statement said.

The interview with Faust was not the first time that she has expressed concerns with Obama’s plan. Faust cited similar objections to the ratings system and associated college scorecard website in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times in February.

“Making college more affordable for students and families is a fundamental goal that we in higher education are dedicated to support,” Faust wrote. “When we decide what to measure, we signal what counts. Equating the value of education with the size of a first paycheck badly distorts broader principles and commitments essential to our society and our future.”

—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @NikitaKansra.

—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @syweinstock.

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