Welcoming the president to the real world of college costs - The Buffalo News
print logo

Welcoming the president to the real world of college costs

It always is nice to see politicians catch up with the public. President Obama kicked off a two-day, education-centric road trip Thursday at the University of Buffalo’s Alumni Arena. A friendly capacity crowd would have lapped up whatever Obama chose to serve. But there especially was no need to sugarcoat an affordable-college message to an audience heavy with SUNY students.

You can bet your Pell grant that they understood the “best buy” concept long before he voiced it.

Part of Obama’s push for saner-priced colleges involves rating – and tying federal dollars to – schools based on the academic bang students get for their buck. Quality education at a reasonable price.

Welcome, Mr. President, to the world beyond Pennsylvania Avenue. Obama should have no problem selling a plan that reflects most parents’ reality. Presumably it’s not news to anyone in Washington that a large part of a family’s college-selection equation involves calculating the pain to its pocketbook.

As the father of one college student, with a second on the way, I’m familiar with those calculations, and I’m hardly the only one.

City Honors is the top-rated public school, by test score, in Erie County. Most graduates have plenty of college choices. Yet more than half of the 2013 graduating class my daughter was part of – 62 of 110, by my count – are headed for a SUNY school. From what I have seen and heard, dollars were for many families a big part of the college consideration.

With the annual bill for room/board/tuition/expenses at some top-tier private schools hitting $60,000, nothing screams “sanity” louder than the lure of an in-state public school. The no-SUNY-tuition “Say Yes” discount now available to many Buffalo public school graduates sweetens the deal, dropping the annual SUNY cost to barely $10,000.

In an landscape where, Obama noted, public college costs have inflated 250 percent over the last three decades, while incomes have grown just 16 percent, “affordable college” is rapidly becoming an oxymoron.

Ralph Williams’ daughter Sara, a City Honors graduate, is headed for SUNY Geneseo. She chose it over a private school that would have cost four times as much.

“Cost was a huge part of the consideration, said Williams, who has another daughter in high school. “Plus, Geneseo is at least as good academically” as the private school. “For us, it was a no-brainer.”

I think it is about time the government formalized a “good buy” ranking, and not just as a sensible way to dole out Washington dollars to schools. The purely academic ratings every college parent (and college president) knows by heart, notably from U.S. News & World Report, have long been the tail that wagged the higher-education dog. Lust to improve their U.S. News ranking has prompted some colleges to fudge numbers. Numerous others overemphasize the SAT test, in order to tout the high median scores of incoming freshmen. Still others encourage applications from students with little chance of getting in, to pump up their “selectivity” rating. Such are the rankings-enhancement games that college administrators play – to the detriment of kids and parents.

Obama’s “bang-for-the-buck” push rewards schools – with taxpayer dollars – for affordability and recognizes the financial reality of middle-income parents – many of whom have multiple college-bound kids.

It credits schools that freeze or cut costs and pumps up the prestige of institutions who give students good value for their dollar. It was no accident that Obama’s four-stop road trip included UB and SUNY Binghamton. Binghamton is 12th on the Kiplinger’s “Best Values in Public Colleges” list, three behind SUNY Geneseo. UB is 33rd.

This is the world as most parents know it: Saving, scraping and doing without, while searching for the best college deal. It’s nice to see Obama working it from the Washington side. Welcome to the fight, Mr. President. With any luck, the battle will turn by the time Malia is ready to go.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment