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In NH, Obama's education plan finds appreciative skeptics

New Hampshire Sunday News

August 24. 2013 11:05PM

SNHU President Paul LeBlanc 

Higher education leaders here voiced skepticism last week about President Barack Obama's plan for a new ratings system to help families choose which colleges provide the best value.

Still, they applauded the President for starting a national conversation about making college more affordable and accessible.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, said the campus was "giddy" with pride after Obama praised the school in a Thursday speech in Buffalo, N.Y., for the kind of innovation Obama said is crucial.

SNHU's College for America program measures students' competency, not the amount of time they spend in classrooms, LeBlanc said. Its first graduate "went from zero credits to an associate degree in three months."

LeBlanc said the President's call for action acknowledged a difficult truth: "The current models are not sustainable."

LeBlanc said he's skeptical of rating systems, and rating colleges fairly would be an especially difficult task.

"That said, undoubtedly what you measure in this world is what comes to matter," LeBlanc said. "And to the extent they can develop a nuanced rating system that looks at true value-added education - the distance a school brings students from where they begin to where they end - I think that's going to be very powerful."He also is a "huge fan" of the President's call for expanding a program that caps student loan repayment rates at 10 percent of earnings.

Thomas Horgan is president and CEO of the New Hampshire College & University Council, a nonprofit consortium of 22 public and private institutions of higher education. He said he welcomes Obama's focus on the topic. "As the President said, the best economic investment you're ever going to make continues to be getting a college degree, and figuring out ways to make it more affordable and accessible is an important conversation we ought to have as a nation."However, he said, "the devil is always in the details.

"A ranking system of colleges is probably problematic because we have a very diverse higher education landscape in this country," from open-access community colleges to Ivy League colleges that cater to an elite group of students, he said.

"The President's proposals raise lots of questions, and I'm hopeful that we're going to have an informed and inclusive conversation about this, rather than offer up solutions that are looking for problems," Horgan said.

To make college more affordable, Horgan would start by increasing state and federal funding. And he said, "I would put the profit that they make off student loans into grants to low-income students rather than federal deficit reduction."

A new report by Sallie Mae, which administers education loans and college savings plans, found that four in 10 families borrow to pay for college. "How America Pays for College 2013" also found that six out of 10 families do not have financial plans to pay for all years of college prior to students enrolling.

New Hampshire college graduates carry, on average, the highest level of student debt in the country, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit, independent research and policy organization. Members of the class of 2011 here averaged $32,440 in student debt; the national average was $26,600.

Thomas Galligan Jr., president of Colby-Sawyer College, said he's not a fan of rating systems. "Because I think they oversimplify, and some of them have had pernicious effects and they have done more harm than they have done good," he said.

However, he said, "I think it is a mistake for us as educators to simply say a rating system won't work. Because I think what the President has done is he's challenged all of us in higher education, and he's challenged policymakers, to come up with a better system for higher education.

"And we're only going to do that if we work together."

There's a lot of innovation in higher education today, Galligan said. His own college is revamping its curriculum from 3-credit courses to 4-credit courses, which could help some students graduate more quickly.

Karen House, associate vice president for finance and planning at Keene State College, said her school, too, is already doing some of the innovations the President called for.

But House has concerns about a new rating system, especially if it's tied to federal student aid, as Obama proposed. Such a system would have to take into account the goals of each institution, she said.

And there are already other college rating systems out there, House said. "It just seems we keep layering on one more tool, one more way of looking at things, one more set of data," she said.

"And I think it becomes very complex, and I wonder how students and families use that information."

Dr. Todd Leach, former president of Granite State College, is the new chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire. He said the President is focusing on the right issues, such as innovation and outcomes."I think the unknown right now is some of the details of what has been proposed, and the details will ultimately matter in the end," Leach said. "But I think the intent, the goal ... is in the right direction."Leach said it will be challenging to come up with a system that ties federal student aid to the value of the education different types of institutions deliver, but there's value in doing so.

"Because it's not simply about funding students to necessarily go wherever they like at the same level of funding, but really about how does the federal government get the most bang for the buck, if you will."

If these education leaders could have five minutes with the President, what would they tell him?

"I would say hold us more accountable, but hold us more accountable for the things we can control," said LeBlanc. And he urged the President to "use the bully pulpit" to call on stakeholders, from college presidents to students, to make sacrifices.

House would urge the President to "strike the right balance between innovation and continuation" of what's valuable in a traditional college education.

"I would say that it's a very complex arena, and I think that he has to be careful to listen and to take advantage of the knowledge that is out there," she said.

"I would tell him we need to work together," Galligan said. "I would tell him it's incredibly complex.

"And I would tell him, selfishly but truthfully, that small, independent colleges like Colby-Sawyer and many others in the state of New Hampshire are today the places where the middle class and those who want to join the middle class are getting the opportunity to get the educations that they need, to change their lives and their families' lives for generations to come."

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