Californians know all too well how college costs have skyrocketed in recent years: Tuition at the two state university systems has nearly doubled since 2006. At the current average rate of growth, Stanford will cost more than $100,000 a year by the time a child born today turns 18. Even well-off families won't be able to afford it.
This can't go on. Too many students will be shut out altogether, and many who do attend will be so far in debt after graduation that their loan payments will swallow most of their income. This is a disaster, not just for individuals, but for the country and the economy as a whole.
President Barack Obama has advanced a plan to address this crisis. It is worth exploring, but it needs work. He wants to use the $150 billion the federal government spends every year in student aid as a prod, giving more to schools that do a better job controlling costs and improving access.
A college education remains the best path to a prosperous future. Yet too many schools, particularly for-profit colleges, rake in millions of taxpayer dollars, saddle students with massive debt and then spit them out without the skills needed for a career that pays the bills.
Obama wants to discourage these bad actors by expanding the Department of Education's College Scorecard. It already includes useful information on hundreds of schools, such as graduation rates, cost after grants and scholarships and the rate at which students default on loans -- an important indicator of success after graduation.
The score card already helps students and parents comparison shop. But starting in 2018, Obama wants Congress to make it part of a pay-for-performance system. For example, colleges that accept more low-income students would get bonuses. At schools with poor graduation rates, student aid would be distributed throughout the course of a semester and would stop if students drop out.
The score card will be tricky to perfect. Schools shouldn't be punished because their graduates don't earn high salaries; that would encourage universities to churn out hedge fund managers instead of math teachers. The administration must work closely with institutions to provide the right incentives.
The plan includes other ideas to help rein in costs, such as encouraging colleges to use more online classes to shorten the time it takes to earn some degrees. It includes a previous proposal for a $1 billion fund to encourage states to maintain funding for higher education; declining state support is one of the biggest drivers of tuition increases.
Not surprisingly, colleges and universities that receive billions of taxpayer dollars are chilly to the president's pay-for-performance model. Fine -- so provide us a better plan to control the ever-rising costs of higher education.