President Plans College Bus Tour, Kicking Off Higher Education Debate

As Congress prepares to debate a renewal of the Higher Education Act this fall, President Barack Obama will be taking a two-day bus tour of New York and Pennsylvania colleges Thursday and Friday to talk about the importance of reducing college costs and improving the value of higher education.

"I can tell you that the president does plan to have some new proposals that he’s going to be talking about," said Josh Earnest, White House deputy press secretary, during a briefing Monday afternoon.

On Thursday, the president is slated to deliver remarks at the University at Buffalo (the State University of New York) and Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y. On Friday, he is set to participate in a town hall event at Binghamton University (SUNY) and will deliver remarks at an event at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa.

"The president is going to be talking about his view that we need to rein in the skyrocketing costs of a college education, that never has a college education been more critical to the economic success of middle-class families in this country and if we’re going to make sure that middle-class families continue to have access to economic opportunity, that means that more students are going to need to have access to a high-quality college education," Earnest said.

The bus tour precedes a broader debate this fall aimed at overhauling the expanse of federal higher education programs that expire Jan. 1. As the education committees in both chambers turn their attention to rewriting the 1965 Higher Education Act, last reauthorized in 2008 (PL 110-315), lawmakers say they will examine the student loan program and Pell grants, consider ways to encourage colleges to cut costs, and seek to ensure that states stop gutting their higher education system budgets.

Lawmakers from both parties say Congress should act to help reverse the trajectory of higher tuition costs that has resulted in borrowers racking up more than $1 trillion in student loan debt. The mechanisms for doing so are extraordinarily intricate, and proponents acknowledge the challenge ahead.

It is unclear exactly what new proposals Obama might present during the bus tour, but the administration has tried to pressure states and colleges to be more responsible about costs. The president, in his two most recent State of the Union addresses, put them on notice, saying he would use his executive power to steer federal dollars for such programs as work-study to colleges and universities that cut costs and away from those that have not made an effort.

Those sentiments were reiterated Tuesday by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, after the National Center for Education Statistics released its annual study on student financial aid, which showed that 71 percent of all undergraduates received some type of financial aid and that 57 percent of all undergraduates received federal student aid.

"The data also shows that increasing federal student aid alone will not control the cost of college," Duncan said. "All of us share responsibility for ensuring that college is affordable. The report is a reminder that we need state policymakers and individual colleges and universities to do their part in taking action against rising college tuition."

Democrats generally like that carrot-stick approach, but Republicans are less inclined to tell schools what they can and cannot do by regulating the flow of federal dollars, highlighting just one of several policy differences lawmakers will need to tackle as part of the reauthorization.

"We need to make sure that more middle-class families can get access to that college education, and that, frankly, families that are trying to get into the middle class also have the chance to afford a college education," Earnest said.

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