Obama leaves office with higher education legacy

AddThis

President Barack Obama speaks at the Austin Music Hall during SXSW 2016. Obama helped overhaul the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid, making it easier for students to accurately complete the form.
Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

President Barack Obama’s changes to higher education during his time in office have impacted students at UT-Austin and universities nationwide.

The Obama Administration worked to make college accessible and affordable for families across the nation by overhauling programs that provide support to students. 

In 2009, Obama took part in overhauling the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid, which eliminated 26 questions from the application and allowed students to use tax information from the prior year. Educational administration professor Richard Reddick said this made it easier for students to accurately complete the application. The same year, Obama also helped invest over $40 billion in the Pell Grant program to keep up with the rising costs of tuition.

“Anything that facilitates and streamlines the application process for financial aid is a victory for first-generation college students, who along with low-income students, are the population most in need of federal financial aid,” Reddick said in an email.

In 2009, Obama also introduced loan payments tied to income, known as income-based repayment, which allows students to payback their loans with 10–15 percent of their monthly income over a 20- to 25-year period, depending on the program. Reddick said IDR plans have been helpful but are only a temporary solution to the tuition burden on families. 

“The real issue is the increasing burden of tuition on students and their families,” Reddick said in an email. “For around 30 years, states have invested less into higher education, and the shortfall is expressed in higher tuition costs. I would hope the next president acknowledges that student debt is an issue that is seriously hampering this generation — and work with legislators to bring focus to the importance of reinvesting in higher education on the state level. Higher education is in fact a public benefit — not just for the individual student, but for society. We seem to have lost this sensibility, and the current policy context is a result of that.”

Economics assistant professor Richard Murphy said IDR helps simplify the process of paying back loans for students, but many do not apply due to the complicated application process, which can take months to authorize.

“In other countries students are automatically enrolled in an [IDR] scheme and stay in it until the debt is repaid,” Murphy said in an email. “In the U.S., graduates have to apply through a loan servicer to complete a 10-page application and will generally take months to be authorized, and reapply each year,”Murphy said a more sensible policy for loan repayment would be to increase the time period in which borrowers can pay back their loans. Extending the repayment period helps lower default rates on loans.

Reddick said he considers the shift in 2010 to providing loans directly through the government rather than from private banks to be the president’s greatest accomplishment in higher education. He also said he wishes Obama had focused on reframing the discussion on college affordability during his presidency.

“States need to be challenged to better support public higher education, and all of the discussion about loans and repayment plans, and forgiveness, don’t address the underlying cause, which goes back to the lack of state support,” Reddick said in an email.

Both Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump have addressed the affordability of college during their campaigns. Educational administration assistant professor Lauren Schudde said the public needs to change their views on higher education moving forward to address societal concerns.

“At some point, this country is going to have to make bigger investments in higher education at both the federal and state level,” Schudde said in an email. “I hope to see a future where public colleges are actually free, but I know that the idea seems radical or unreasonable to people who think of a college education as a private good that only offers returns to the individual student.  I see it as a public good, educating citizens who can then give back to society and who are less likely to need the public safety net. It’s worth the investment.”