LSU hosts forum on president’s higher education plan

When LSU finance major John Woodard was a senior in high school, the Covington native was recruited by the University of North Carolina to move to Chapel Hill to play tennis.

Ultimately, Woodard’s decision to stay in Louisiana came down to cost. He could go to LSU for free thanks to the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, known as the TOPS scholarship, or he could burden his parents with the $30,000 to $40,000 it would cost to attend UNC.

Woodard told his story Thursday at a public forum hosted by the U.S. Department of Education. LSU was one of four locations nationwide chosen to discuss President Barack Obama’s plan to address rising college costs and to make college more affordable.

Department heads are scheduled to present decision makers with a draft of their findings from these public forums in the spring.

Obama’s plan would create a new college ranking system by 2015 that would measure schools on tuition costs, student debt, graduation rates and the percentage of low-income students enrolled. Colleges would also be judged by what kind of starting salaries students command after graduation.

If approved by Congress, students attending higher ranking schools would get cheaper loans and larger federal grants.

Woodard closed his remarks talking about how affordable colleges are, how accessible they make themselves to students and how well they prepare people for careers after graduation.

“I would’ve loved to have seen those type of things as a high school senior, instead of just looking at costs,” Woodard said.

While the concept of college affordability dominated much of the debate over the president’s proposal, many of the speakers at LSU on Thursday focused on college access.

David Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, said about 90 percent of the 8,100 students on his campus have some type of financial aid.

Even though his school charges the fourth lowest tuition among public universities in Maryland, his students leave college with the highest amount of debt in the state. He chalked that up to the large percentage of students who come from families who bring in less than $36,000 a year in income.

Wilson said he’s concerned that a new ranking system that puts too much weight on student debt will hurt schools like Morgan State that have large numbers of low-income students.

“Every year, I have to send home 400 to 800 students,” he said. It’s not because they aren’t doing well academically, “it’s because they don’t have the money to continue.”

Schools shouldn’t be punished for low graduation and retention rates if those things are caused by students who don’t have the money to stay in school, Wilson said.

Tommy Screen, director of government relations at Loyola University in New Orleans, addressed starting salaries — another component included in the president’s proposal.

Screen used an example of a hypothetical student to illustrate his point that a promising student very well could forgo an $85,000 job with an investment firm if that student felt their calling was to take a $40,000 position with Teach For America.

“That scenario will be played out year after year,” he said and will adversely affect a school’s ranking.

Stephanie Givens, director of LSU’s Upward Bound program, works with low-income students whose parents did not earn college degrees.

Givens said she worries the proposed ranking system will restrict access to college for many students and make it risky for colleges to enroll people from low-income backgrounds.

The natural response for schools would be to raise admission standards, thereby increasing selectivity in order to improve their rankings, Givens said.

Value means different things to different people, Givens added.

Value to her students is a college that is close to their home; a school that offers their preferred major; an institution that nurtures a student who is the first in their family to pursue a degree; and a university that offers childcare and night classes for students who have kids and have to work while in school to pay their bills.

Making it risky for colleges to enroll low-income students is “not advancing our country,” she said.

The issue of college affordability is one that LSU President F. King Alexander talks about a lot. He often notes that student debt, estimated at $1 trillion, recently surpassed the nation’s collective credit card debt.

On Thursday, he welcomed further debate on a topic, he said, that hasn’t been discussed seriously on a national level since the early 1970s.

Alexander said the country needs a system to funnel federal financial aid dollars to the schools that help students succeed, rather than “the proliferation of for-profit schools set up in industrial parks and street corners across the country,” that are only in the business of higher education to make money.

“We need to make sure that 10 years from now, there will be federal student aid,” he said. “The worst thing we could be doing now, is to do nothing.”