The Freedom Not to Choose

One of the Obama presidency's signature goals has been to rescue Americans from the kinds of excruciating choices that have become all too common in recent years. Buy medication or food? Pay the mortgage or the electricity bill? Forgo college or take on soul-crushing debt? A case in point: The Affordable Care Act, which in effect recasts healthcare as a basic economic right, not merely an option. Now the president has similarly redefined the right to an affordable college education.

"At a time when a higher education has never been more important or more expensive, too many students are facing a choice that they should never have to make," the president told an audience at the University of Buffalo last week. "Either they say no to college and pay the price for not getting a degree -- and that's a price that lasts a lifetime--or you do what it takes to go to college, but then you run the risk that you won't be able to pay it off because you've got so much debt."

Admittedly, there are aspects of Obama's "Better Bargain for the Middle Class" plan that, like the Affordable Care Act, may seem dense, complex and even impractical. Consider the idea of ranking colleges and apportion financial aid on the basis of measurable outcomes, such as tuition fees, institutional performance and graduation rates. All of these things "are important for students choosing a college," Obama said. "It's important to us that college offer good value for their tuition dollars." To be sure, there are sound arguments for setting performance benchmarks. But as the American Association of Community Colleges has noted, the president's scheme "raises potential issues of equity for community college students, since many of them are not in a position to attend a different institution even if they should want to."

I agree that ranking colleges could prove problematic. But as the president of a major urban community college, I regard this as just a quibble in the greater scheme of things. What matters most is that Washington has at long last made college affordability a priority.

Around the time of the president's announcement, a study released by two former U.S. Census Bureau officials reported that median household income -- even for college graduates -- has increased over the past two years, but nonetheless remains far below pre-financial crisis levels. These findings complete what I would call a dismal triptych: (1) A high-school diploma no longer guarantees a good job and a secure middle-class existence; at least some post-secondary-level education is necessary to qualify for good jobs in the new economy; (2) With tuition costs rising faster than general inflation, more and more academically qualified students are being priced out of the college market; (3) Even those with college degrees are struggling to get ahead economically.

The worst of the financial crisis may be over, as the Census Bureau report suggests. But, viewed together, these three facts point to something terribly wrong in our country today -- namely that we have an education system that devalues a high school education on the one hand and makes college unaffordable on the other. College students today are in debt to the tune of more than $1 trillion, while funding of higher education steadily shrinks. Community colleges, which account for nearly half of total college enrollment, are experiencing the most onerous cuts. Amidst this crisis, Congress passed a compromise bipartisan bill that wiped out an attempt to double the federal student loan interest rate to 6.8% to a rate tied to the financial markets.

Of course, the president's proposals are no quick fix. In many quarters, both the plan and the president will be targeted with fierce, even vitriolic attacks. We have been through this before. Some parts of the plan will be subject to radical alteration, while others will be eliminated outright. The upshot: we have a long way to go before the "Better Bargain for the Middle Class" is finalized and implemented and begins to yield its promised benefits.

But by the very act of forcing the dialogue, Obama has led us on a crucial and courageous first step toward a better and more equitable bargain -- not just for the middle class and the millions of students who can't afford to attend college, but for the nation.

In a free society, an education, like health care, should be affordable for all. And no one should be asked to choose between the two.

Antonio Pérez is President of Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY