ANN ARBOR, Mich. — President Barack Obama fired a warning at the nation's colleges and universities on Friday, threatening to strip their federal aid if they "jack up tuition" every year and to give the money instead to schools showing restraint and value.
Obama can't proceed, though, without the OK from Congress, where the reaction of Republican lawmakers ranged from muted to skeptical. Higher education leaders worried about the details and the threat of government overreach, and one dismissed it as mere election-year "political theater."
Average tuition and fees at public colleges rose 8.3 percent this year and, with room and board, now exceed $17,000 a year, according to the College Board.
Obama delivered his proposal with campaign flair, mounting a mainstream appeal to young voters and struggling families. He said higher education has become an imperative for success in America, but the cost has grown unrealistic for too many families, and the debt burden unbearable.
"We are putting colleges on notice," Obama told an arena packed with cheering students at the University of Michigan.
"You can't assume that you'll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can't stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down."
Obama is targeting only a small part of the financial aid picture — the $3 billion known as campus-based aid that flows through college administrators to students. He is proposing to increase that amount to $10 billion and change how it is distributed to reward schools that hold down costs and ensure that more poor students complete their education.
The bulk of the more than $140 billion in federal grants and loans goes directly to students and would not be affected.
Rising tuition costs have been attributed to a variety of factors, among them a decline in state dollars and competition for the best facilities and professors. Washington's leverage to take on the rising cost of college is limited because American higher education is decentralized, with most student aid following the student. And that's not counting the legislative gridlock.
Terry Hartleis the senior vice president at the American Council on Education, an organization that represents colleges in Washington.
"If you were a betting person, you would not bet on it getting done, simply because the political atmosphere in Washington is so poisonous," Hartle said..
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, said Obama put forward "interesting ideas that deserve a careful review." But Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who leads a House panel with jurisdiction over higher education, said Obama's plan should have tackled federal regulations that she said contribute to the problem.
The top Democrat on the House education committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said Congress has bipartisan concern about the rising costs of college and thinks the president's plan will open up a conversation about the problem. Some Republicans in the past, including Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., have offered proposals similar to the president's.
Others were sharper in their critique.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary, questioned whether Obama can enforce any plan that shifts federal aid away from colleges and universities without hurting the students it is meant to help. "The federal government has no business doing this," he said.
Enacted or not, Obama's plan may have the kind of popular appeal he can use in the campaign.
In Ann Arbor, he soaked up the cheers of students as he outlined the agenda from his State of the Union speech, and gave a shout out to the popular quarterback of the school's football team. And Obama used the college-aid matter to put the onus for action on Republicans, again painting them as obstructionists and himself as the fighter for the middle class.
Mary Sue Coleman, president of University of Michigan, said schools should be challenged to find ways to restrain costs, but they can't continue to make up for state cuts. Money for state universities in Michigan dropped by 15 percent in this year's state budget, and many — including the University of Michigan — raised tuition to help make up for the lost support.
Obama challenged states to be more responsible, too.
"He recognizes every part of it," Coleman said. "That's what was so powerful about the speech."
Kevin Carey, policy director at the independent Education Sector think tank, said higher education leaders will surely detest Obama's plan even if they do not say so directly.
"Instead, they'll work behind the scenes to kill it," Carey predicted.
University of Washington President Mike Young said Obama showed he did not understand how the budgets of public universities work. Young said the total cost to educate college students in Washington state, which is paid for by both tuition and state government dollars, has actually gone down because of efficiencies on campus. While universities are tightening costs, the state is cutting their subsidies and authorizing tuition increases to make up for the loss.
"They really should know better," Young said. "This really is political theater of the worst sort."
Obama also wants to create a "Race to the Top" competition in higher education similar to the one his administration used on lower grades. He wants to encourage states to make better use of higher education dollars in exchange for $1 billion in prize money. A second competition called "First in the World" would encourage innovation to boost productivity on campuses.
Obama is also pushing for the creation of more tools to help students determine which colleges and universities have the best value.
Michigan was Obama's last stop on a five-day trip to sell his State of the Union agenda in politically important states.
The White House has begun facing criticism from Republicans and daily questions from reporters about the blurring of Obama's governing and campaign-style events. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Obama went before Michigan students to promote a policy idea.
Said Carney: "We're not going to tell people not to applaud."