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Department of Education

This week, President Obama unveiled a new plan designed to make college more affordable . The plan will tie federal financial aid to college performance based a new rating system:

President Obama is directing the Department of Education to develop and publish a new college ratings system that would be available for students and families before the 2015 college year. In the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the President will seek legislation allocating financial aid based upon these college ratings by 2018, once the ratings system is well established. Students can continue to choose whichever college they want, but taxpayer dollars will be steered toward high-performing colleges that provide the best value.

This is not unreasonable. Parents who pay for their child’s education want a say in where that child goes to school. They will probably want to see their child’s grades. If the federal government pays for your degree (through grants or low-interest loans), it wants to ensure you are getting a good education. No one wants to throw their money away.

In spite of the logic behind this policy, I could hear faint strains of ominous music playing in my mental soundtrack as I listened to the president unfold his plan. Our colleges and universities—both public and private—have a crippling dependence on federal aid money. That money is so essential to the survival of higher education institutions that I suspect most of them would fold if federal student aid was wholly withdrawn.

And while the rating system may initially be tied to criteria such as affordability, graduation rates, and post-graduation job placement, it could swiftly become tied to other factors that encroach on religious liberties. Will federal student aid be available at a university that doesn’t offer a plurality of religious views? Will it be withdrawn from institutions whose hiring practices discriminate against particular lifestyles?

We shouldn’t wait to find out. People of faith and foundations with concern for religious liberty must start establishing alternative means to help students fund their education.  If and when the government attaches so many strings to federal aid that the requirements undermine the mission of an institution, I hope there will be someone waiting in the wings with a private endowment and a large pair of sharp scissors, ready to cut us free.

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