Ivory Tower Meets White House

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series discussing the presidential candidates views and likely policies toward higher education. This part focuses on President Obama’s policies. On Friday, December 16, Jenna Ashley Robinson will present the higher education track records and statements of the Republican candidates.)

Once upon a time, the federal government didn’t have very much to do with higher education. But World War II led the central government to pump up the nation’s research capacities by giving grants to academics, and higher education has incrementally fallen further under the government’s sway ever since.

Because the federal government is now more involved in academia, the upcoming presidential election is very important to the Ivory Tower, with widely disparate policies likely, depending on who wins.

While seven Republicans—each with his or her own set of ideas about higher education—are still slugging it out to become the eventual nominee, we can be fairly certain at this point that President Obama will represent the Democrats. After three years in office, his views on higher education are now a matter of record.  Perhaps more than any other president, he has placed an emphasis on higher education policy.

President Obama came into office with huge support from the higher education establishment. Academia, where voter registrations run four-to-one in favor of Democrats, was one of his strongest constituencies. As an adjunct law professor, he was—or appeared to be—one of them.

In speeches before and after his election, he has consistently maintained an expansive vision of higher education. We need, he claims, to produce more college graduates in order to be more competitive economically. He has favored more public spending to produce those graduates, and he has promoted the belief that higher education is for everyone (and favored more spending to that end as well).

Once in office, he immediately pushed for passage of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA).  It became law in March 2010 as part of an amendment to the health care bill (known as Obamacare).

The most notable change to higher education wrought by SAFRA was the end of subsidized guarantees of student loans for private lenders. Direct lending by the Department of Education was expanded to replace private loans. Many critics attacked this part of the law, suggesting that it was a government takeover of a private function.

It also permitted part-time students to qualify for Pell grants, and simplified the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that is required of all federal financial aid recipients. It appropriated $750 million for a new program, the College Access Challenge Grant Program, which provides further financial aid and guidance for low-income students.

Furthermore, it gave $2.55 billion to historically black colleges, and another $2 billion to community colleges.

The president ’s attempts to stimulate the economy were particularly generous to universities. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) provided roughly $8 billion in additional funds for institutions of higher education. Many states used the ARRA money to counter the large cuts in appropriations to their public higher education systems forced by diminished tax revenues.

ARRA also gave universities and faculty researchers billions in research grants. The National Institute of Health disbursed $8.2 billion of ARRA money to researchers, while the National Science Foundation handed out roughly $3 billion.

The election of November 2010, however, ended the President’s ability to get legislation passed at will, due to the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives. But he continued to give higher education a high priority when stating his intentions. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama said he would spare education (including higher education) from an impending freeze of non-defense discretionary spending. He called for more federal funding for research, said he hoped to increase the nation’s teachers of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects by 100,000, and asked Congress to make permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which returns a total of $10,000 to tuition-paying families over a four-year span.

He quickly followed his State of the Union address with a budget proposal that backtracked slightly on his expansion of the Pell grant program. Along with some other changes, he proposed rescinding the ability to receive two Pell Grants in a single calendar year, which had cost 10 times as much as anticipated.

His budget proposal also recommended creating a new program intended to increase graduation rates. However, given the contentious behavior of the newly elected Republican majority in Congress, he might have made his budget proposal knowing that it was “dead-on-arrival.”

Because getting his policies through Congress became unlikely—there has been no new budget passed even at this late date—he appears to have made several end runs around their obstinacy by using executive orders.

First, the president used his executive powers to lay the groundwork for the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which permits some illegal alien students to remain in the U.S. and provides a path to citizenship for them if they graduate from college. The president has voiced ardent support of the act, which has stalled in the Senate. According to the liberal website Politics USA, his July, 2011 executive order entitled “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion Consistent with the Civil Immigration Enforcement Priorities of the Agency for the Apprehension, Detention, and Removal of Aliens,” provides “guidance for ICE officials to show compassion for immigrants who would qualify for the Dream Act’s provisions if it were the law.”

In October, he issued another executive action to be implemented through Department of Education regulations. The approximately 5.8 million former students with both private loans guaranteed by the federal government (FFEL) and direct government loans can have them consolidated into one direct loan. By shifting their FFEL loans into the direct loan program, students can have them forgiven after ten years of repayment (and have been since 2010), as direct loans are, should the borrowers opt for “public service” by working for government or non-profit organizations.

The second change will reduce the minimum annual repayment from 15 percent of some (former) students’ discretionary incomes to 10 percent. It will also forgive all remaining balances on those loans after 20 years of repayment, instead of the current 25-year limit.

Finally, on December 2, the President’s Justice and Education departments issued new guidelines that appear to reintroduce affirmative action into college admissions. In 2005, guidelines were written that reflected two Supreme Court decisions involving the University of Michigan that put an end to direct affirmative action programs, but permitted race to be used as one factor in admissions. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the guidelines “appeared to actively encourage colleges to consider applicants’ race if it was deemed necessary to achieve diversity.”

In sum, Obama has favored polices that increase the federal government’s involvement in higher education, adding to its control over the academy and raising the level of government subsidization. These policies also expand academia’s role in our society, by encouraging greater college attendance—particularly for minorities—and by financing higher levels of research. 

His record presents a stark contrast with most of the Republican candidates, some of whom question whether the federal government should have much, if any, role in higher education.