More bang for the buck
College costs are almost as mysterious as hospital bills. So President Obama's unfolding effort to use accountability as an instrument to reduce costs will be welcomed by parents and students struggling in a system that has a hard time defining value.
There is fundamental value. As the president said Friday in his visit to Lackawanna College in Scranton, getting a college degree is the best thing that someone can do to boost lifelong earning power. But what degree, and at what cost? That's where the system breaks down.
Mr. Obama wants to establish a rating system for colleges by the beginning of the 2015 academic year, based on their performance. There are some practical aspects to the plan that should be adopted regardless of the rating system. For example, the president wants a hard cap of 10 percent on the amount of a graduate's, or a former student's, income that can be paid for student loans each year. And the plan calls for educating students and graduates on the actual costs of college financing.
The president would tie aid to colleges' performance. But the problem is going to be defining that performance. Some parameters will include graduation rates, timely progress by students toward degrees and graduate job placement.
Such parameters clearly are needed. But defining performance - most often considered these days in terms of careers - risks diminishing the value of higher education itself, which is not and should not be assessed only as vocational training.
Mr. Obama's initiative is a worthy one that is crucial to the nation's competitiveness. At the same time, tackling the cost of education should not result in diminishing its intrinsic value.