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A new page for American higher education?


“Tonight we turn the page”, said Barack Obama during his annual speech on the State of the Union, delivered on 20 January. The announced White House policy agenda for 2015 marked indeed a shift in tone for higher education policy, including brand new proposals in the direction of a stronger federal role. However, other higher education reforms - such as the college ratings system (see ACA Newsletter Education Europe, Edition January 2015) were unmentioned in Obama’s speech. 

Among the most ambitious new proposals, there is the tuition-free community college plan, announced earlier this month by the US President, planning to completely wave tuitions for the two-year community colleges nationwide – regardless of criteria such as income and merit, and also for students who are already receiving a Pell Grant. The measure will cost USD 60 billion (almost EUR 52 billion) for the coming ten years and it should be co-financed by the states (25%) and the federal Government (75%). The White House is planning to cover the costs through the introduction of a new tax targeting the wealthiest Americans and financial institutions. 

Other items addressed in the State of the Union speech concerned different tools to boost university access and affordability, such as the simplification of the federal student aid application (FAFSA), the expansion and reform of income-based repayment to make all student borrowers eligible for the federal government’s loan repayment plan, and the change of higher education tax benefits. Also, the Obama administration will likely come up with a set of proposals for rewriting the Higher Education Act, the far-reaching law that governs student aid and colleges and universities. The law, including Democratic priorities, was already rewritten last year and has encountered resistances in the Congress, controlled by a Republican majority.

Finally, efforts for a stronger control over universities are ongoing. Concerned that some states have been too lax in regulating colleges and universities, the Obama administration has pushed new 'state authorization' rules, aimed at prodding states to bolster their oversight of higher education. One of those rules - applying only to colleges with physical locations – has already been approved and will take effect starting from July. Separately, the administration has also pursued a state authorization requirement for online programmes. The regulation is controversial because it would force distance education programmes to seek approval from regulators in every state in which they enrol students, and for this reason no political agreement has been reached so far. Time will tell whether the ambitious new pages will be completed in the history of American higher education.