November 11, 2006

The election and higher-ed policy

This morning, I'll look at the national election results and higher-ed policy.  (I've already discussed the election results and national K-12 policy.) None of this should be earth-shaking, and much has already been discussed in the relevant Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Ed articles.

  1. The primary higher-ed goal for Democrats is affordability. There are three targets within that:
    • The ability of poor young adults to attend any college: this is the politics of the Pell grant.
    • The ability of middle-class parents to send their children to good out-of-state public universities: this is the politics of student-loan interest rates. (You think it's about sending kids to Harvard or Yale?  It's much more about the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of North Carolina, and so forth. We're talking the affordability of $18,000/year tuition, not the affordability of $42,000/year packages.)
    • The ability of older adults to attend college, either for the first time or to return for a vocational certificate at community colleges or for a masters program: this is the politics of the lifelong-learning tax credit, or whatever will be the updated version. I suspect this will be left off the table at the end of the session, but I could easily be wrong.
  2. The discussion of accountability will be largely an intracommittee (and intrasubcommittee) issue, as Republicans bargain for what they can in return for not blocking an affordability package. This will be the test of a return to standard bargaining in Congress: will the Democrats try to logroll the changes in financial-aid policy, or will they engage in the type of horse-trading that was common (no matter who was in the majority) before the Karl Rove era?
    • At rock bottom, accountability will be about transparency in financial aid. On this, I suspect both Democrats and Republicans can agree, so the heavy negotiations involve the private colleges and universities. The irony here is that the greatest violation of academic principles are with public university spending on merit- vs. need-based aid. But as with the unit-records database controversy (see the anonymous diploma registration proposal for more on this), the publics will probably let the privates fight the first battles.
    • Direct intervention in the curriculum is probably dead. There may be some discussion of grade inflation, defending liberal arts, and so forth, but I don't think there will be anything tangible. It's just too far from the central motivations for most Members of Congress.
    • I doubt accountability would involve high-stakes tests, at least as a federal issue. George Miller signed onto NCLB's testing provision, so he's committed to that, but he strikes me as shrewd enough to see that the backlash in K-12 is mild compared to the uproar that would accompany similar maneuvers in higher ed.
    • I don't see any chance of having Congressional authorization for something federal to replace the awful U.S. News rankings.
    • Unit records are still dead, at least as a federal mandate.
  3. As others have noted, the for-profits have lost a significant chance at rewriting the statutory definitions of what a college is. They'll continue to push, but I just don't think that'll be on the table.
  4. Earmarking will be an interesting battle. The worst example of earmarking abuse was the FY 2005 appropriations for the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), which had so many earmarks that program officers had to cancel (CHE: sub) the merit-based proposal process for that year. As Peter Levine notes, earmarking is probably more important, money-wise, in larger programs, but the smaller higher-ed programs are susceptible to it because it's an easy target of earmarking as "constituent service" and "bringing home the bacon."

I fully expect to be wrong a bunch of these predictions: I'm an historian, not a soothsayer. But it's occasionally interesting to try the crystal-ball routine.

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Posted in Education policy on November 11, 2006 8:24 AM |