The Bush administration has proposed tying some economic aid for US universities to their record of graduating students on time.
The idea, opposed by many universities, is the most sweeping part of the administration's plans for the Higher Education Act. The act is a massive umbrella law that covers national higher education policy. It is revisited and reauthorised just once every several years.
Debate about the act is expected to intensify this year, but the Bush team has already released its early plans. They include increasing universities'
accountability, much as the administration has done for primary and secondary education.
Draft documents from the department of education propose a new "performance-based" grant programme tied to a university's record of graduating students on time.
Public universities are already objecting to the grants-for-graduation idea, saying it would put them at a disadvantage because their students take longer to graduate than those at private universities. They said public universities had a disproportionate share of part-time students who worked full time and who often took more than five years to finish their degrees.
The documents, which were released so that interested parties could review and respond to them, say the administration thinks the graduation tie-in is an answer to the question: "How can the federal government encourage greater persistence and completion of students enrolled in postsecondary education?"
As an example, the department cites Pennsylvania, which created a grant programme to reward universities that graduated at least 40 per cent of their students within four years.
But critics pointed out that not a single public university in Pennsylvania qualified. Under the administration's proposal, those critics said, public universities might be tempted to shut out part-time students or students who might take too long to graduate.