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Originally published Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 9:39 PM

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U.S. education official calls on state to step up higher-ed help

Martha Kanter, undersecretary of the federal Department of Education and a key policymaker on higher-education issues in President Obama's administration, spoke during a town hall-style meeting at the University of Washington on Wednesday.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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An Obama administration official called on state leaders Wednesday to provide "stable and predictable higher-education funding" as one of the ways to ensure all residents earn at least a year of education after high school.

Martha Kanter, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education and a key policymaker on higher-education issues in President Obama's administration, spoke during a town hall-style meeting at the University of Washington's Kane Hall to a sympathetic crowd of more than 100 professors, deans, administrators and students.

Obama has called on colleges and universities to slow down the furious pace of tuition increases and has proposed a Race to the Top for college affordability and completion — a way to offer incentives for innovative programs that cut the cost of college and get more students to finish. He has also suggested cutting student financial aid to schools that don't graduate enough students, and whose students are in default on their loans.

Kanter, a former California community-college president who was appointed shortly after Obama took office in 2009, talked about how 13 other nations now have a higher percentage of their populations holding college degrees than in the U.S., and how educational achievement in the U.S. has largely stalled at a time when employers are calling for more sophisticated skills.

Public universities and colleges get almost all of their funding from state allocations and tuition, and when state tax revenue dried up across the country, higher education was one of the hardest-hit areas.

In his State of the Union speech in January, Obama pledged to bring down tuition costs down by tying eligibility for student financial-aid programs to affordability and outcomes.

That produced an outcry from public higher-education officials, who argued that tuition was going up because state lawmakers across the country were slashing funding.

In an interview before the forum Wednesday, Kanter said the proposal to tie student aid to affordability is still on the table.

But she characterized the UW as a model school that's offering a good value to students — even though it has nearly doubled the price of tuition in five years.

What might be a test for good value? That could include a school's graduation rate and its loan-default rates.

A high graduation rate and a low number of loan defaults suggest a school is doing a good job getting students to earn their diplomas and enter the workforce, where they're making enough money to repay their loans.

At the UW, about 80 percent of undergraduates finish their degrees within six years. The default rate on student loans is 1.4 percent.

The national graduation rate for public universities is 55 percent, and the default rate is nearly 9 percent.

Schools with significantly worse numbers might one day face losing their federal student financial aid, Kanter said.

"We think federal aid should be spent on students that are getting good value at the institutions they attend."

But figuring out which schools are a good value is a long-term project, Kanter said. "The performance metrics are not as sophisticated as they need to be."

Also on Kanter's list: improving college remediation so that students are more quickly prepared to begin college-level classes; and programs that accelerate the time it takes a student to finish a degree — year-round schools and programs that offer bachelor's degrees in three years.

Other participants in the town-hall meeting were UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce; State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle; and Nancy Truitt Pierce, a former Everett Community College trustee. The session was moderated by Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times.

Murray described how the Legislature undertook a "slow, consistent cutting of higher education" over 20 years, even before the economic downturn began in 2008.

It was fueled by a "bipartisan populist feel that somehow, higher education was elitist," he said.

When the recession began, the cuts turned sharply steeper. The state has sliced about 50 percent of higher-education funding in the past four years.

Kanter displayed a chart that showed that among the 50 states, Washington ranked seventh worst in terms of the largest cuts in higher-education funding last year.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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