WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama on Thursday will unveil a sweeping new plan for rating colleges based in part on affordability, with the goal of eventually linking those ratings to federal financial aid awards.
The new rating system, which the president wants implemented before the 2015 school year, would evaluate colleges on a series of measures, including average tuition and student loan debt, graduation rates, and the average earning of graduates. Obama is also seeking legislation to link the new rating system to the way federal financial aid is awarded, with students attending highly-rated schools receiving larger grants and more affordable student loans.
Obama will unveil the proposals Thursday as he opens a two-day bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania. The tour underscores the White House's desire to stay focused on domestic issues, even as foreign policy crises in Egypt and Syria vie for his attention.
Throughout the summer, the White House has been seeking to keep the president's public agenda centered on middle-class economic issues as a way to rally public support for his positions ahead of looming fiscal battles with congressional Republicans. And Obama, in an email to supporters this week, said a big part of middle-class security includes fundamentally rethinking how to pay for higher education.
"Just tinkering around the edges won't be enough," Obama said. "We've got to shake up the current system."
In an interview Thursday on MSNBC, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the Obama administration wants to "understand who is doing a good job and who is not and start to move financial aid, move resources toward those universities that are serious about this mission."
"We have so many universities trying to do the right thing," Duncan added. "We have states starting to invest more. We want to incentivize the good actors and say to those that aren't serious about containing costs, 'You have to change your behavior.'"
According to Obama administration estimates, average tuition costs at four-year public colleges have more than tripled over the last three decades. The average student loan borrower also graduates with over $26,000 in debt.
The president will also propose legislation to give colleges a "bonus" based on the number of students they graduate who received Pell Grants. The goal is to encourage colleges to enroll and graduate low- and moderate-income students.
The administration will also seek to require colleges with high dropout rates to disburse student aid over the course of the semester as students face expenses, rather than in a lump sum. The aim is to prevent wasting grant money by ensuring that students who drop out do not receive funds for time they are not in school.
Obama is also renewing his call for a $1 billion college "Race to the Top" competition that would reward states that make significant changes in higher education policies while also containing tuition costs.
The backdrop for the president's rollout will be colleges and high schools throughout New York state and Pennsylvania. He'll hold his first event Thursday morning at the University of Buffalo before traveling by armored bus to Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y. The president will hold a town hall Friday at Binghamton University, then travel to Scranton, Pa., for an event at Lackawanna College.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton native, is scheduled to join Obama in his hometown. Biden spent much of the week in Houston, where his son Beau underwent a medical procedure at a cancer center.
For Obama, who has made no secret of his desire to get out of Washington when he can, the bus tours have become a favorite method for reconnecting with the public. Beyond his official events, the president often makes unscheduled stops at local restaurants and businesses, and sometimes pulls off on the side of the road to greet cheering crowds.
In 2011, the Secret Service purchased a $1.1 million bus for Obama's first bus tour as president. The impenetrable-looking black bus has dark tinted windows and flashing red and blue lights.