Obama Meets With College Leaders as Occupy Protesters Target Student Debt

A dozen heads of public and private universities and “thought leaders” in higher education told President Barack Obama of successes in reducing rises in costs while improving quality.

Obama, along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other administration officials, convened a meeting today in Washington to discuss college affordability, innovation and productivity. They met with presidents from the California State University at Long Beach, Carnegie Mellon University, Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among others, according to a White House statement.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, told Obama they have worked to lower expenses amid state-level funding cuts for higher education.

“Improving performance can actually cut costs,” Hrabowski said in a telephone interview.

He described the Baltimore university’s approach to teaching chemistry, saying it reduced the rate that students received D’s and F’s to 15 percent from 30 percent. Students work in groups of four, ask questions and engage the professor instead of being lectured to. This cuts costs because fewer students need to repeat the course and can spend less time in college, he said.

The public school this year costs about $15,500 for in- state students and about $26,000 for out-of-state students, both living on campus, he said.

Obama told the group he was concerned about the level of student debt, Hrabowski said.

‘Very Interested’

“He’s clearly very interested in helping America’s families pay for college and in making sure that the costs are reasonable,” Hrabowski said.

Officials of the University of Texas System and Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, were also among the leaders at the meeting.

As the costs to attend college increases and borrowers take on loans, student debt has become a rallying cry for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Two-thirds of the class of 2010 graduated with student loans, and their average debt was $25,250, an increase of 5 percent from the previous year, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit research organization.

For students not commuting to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, the estimated cost to attend in the 2011-2012 academic year is $57,520, according to the university’s website. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill costs an estimated $29,984 for in-state students and $45,670 for those from out-of-state, according to its website.

Tuition Increases

Tuition and fees at public universities in the U.S. increased 8.3 percent this year, twice the rate of inflation, to an average $8,244, while costs at nonprofit, private colleges rose 4.5 percent to $28,500, according to the College Board, a nonprofit whose members include universities.

Kirwan, of Maryland, said Obama solicited ideas and listened for about an hour.

Kirwan explained how the Maryland system of 11 colleges and universities has kept tuition and fee increases to an aggregate 6 percent over four years, by consolidating backroom operations such as auditing and construction management, and by negotiating a discount on bulk purchasing of energy and software. In addition, students must earn 10 percent of their credits outside the classroom, saving money.

To contact the reporter on this story: Janet Lorin in New York jlorin@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net.

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