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U.S. Dept. of Education moves forward with college affordability plans

As higher education expenses at schools such as Boston University reach record highs, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is pushing for initiatives such as competency-based education to increase the value of a college education while decreasing costs, officials said.

In to a notice released by the U.S. Department of Education on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan encouraged higher-education institutions authorized under the Higher Education Act of 1965 to test alternative ways of administering financial aid programs.

“For this set of experiments, the Secretary seeks suggestions for creative experiments to test innovations that have the potential to increase quality and reduce costs in higher education, while maintaining or increasing the programmatic and fiscal integrity of the student financial assistance programs authorized by Title IV of the HEA [Higher Education Act of 1965],” the notice stated.

In order to ensure the quality of the future American workforce, increasing the affordability and value of institutions is important for states, said Katy Abel, Mass. Dept. of Higher Education spokeswoman.

“What we’re seeing in Massachusetts is what President Obama is seeing across the country,” Abel said. “He’s saying that it’s not enough to get students to college … That’s why he’s making a push like this to make sure that college costs don’t continue to skyrocket and to make sure that students get a really good education and want to go into fields where there are lots of jobs.”

Obama’s attempts to reform higher education are in response to the United States losing the top rank in educational leadership in the world, Abel said.

“President Obama has shown a great deal of interest in higher education, and it all comes down to one word: graduates,” Abel said. “The United States used to rank number one in the world for the number of college graduates they produced, and today we are no longer the world’s global leader.”

Reforming the cost of higher education in America is one of many other initiatives being developed by the Obama administration, said BU School of Education professor Evangeline Stefanakis. Other proposed reforms include dual enrollment of high school students and prior learning assessments.

Stefanakis said such educational innovations would allow students to pass courses at a personal level and would cut unnecessary spending costs.

“Having students who sometimes come with an accelerated background, whether it’s AP [Advanced Placement] classes [or] International Baccalaureate classes, allows students to not necessarily just take introductory courses, but move ahead at their own pace at a more customized program,” Stefanakis said.

She said BU has already implemented many of the initiatives Obama is looking to nationalize, such as dual enrollment of high school students, in which students are allowed to take select courses at BU.

BU is constantly looking for ways to decrease costs while maintaining high-quality education, said BU spokesman Colin Riley.

“The demand for higher education has increased both domestically and internationally in providing that quality education,” Riley said. “The university does monitor every school and department and certainly looks at their educational offerings in a dynamic way.”

Benjamin Low, a College of Fine Arts freshman, said prior assessment of students is valuable to avoid wasting time on material the already know.

“It [prior assessment] is good because students have the choice of whether they want to take a class again and reestablish that fundamental, but they can also skip it if they’re confident enough,” Low said. “… If you have a student that is of very high caliber and you force him to re-learn stuff that he already knows, it’s not productive to the student. He’ll probably get bored … He might even spend time making mischief.”

PJ Herrera, a Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences sophomore, said universities should place spending priorities on educational improvements while cutting unnecessary programs.

“Spending it on small portions of the community without great reward doesn’t make much sense,” Herrera said. “… Ultimately, college is about education, and for many people, about a job after that. It’s really just about understanding our priorities and the student’s priorities.”

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