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administration, in
the middle of the
healthcare frenzy, to
accomplish what earlier
administrations could
not: eliminate billions
of dollars in federal
subsidies to banks for
student loans in favor
of lending the money
directly. It was also
crucial that—unlike the
Clinton administration,
which tried to do the
same thing but invited
opposition fromhigher
education lobbyists
and their friends in
Congress by proposing
that the savings go toward balancing the budget—the Obama
teampromised that the money would be funneled to the
Pell grant program, which provides university tuition grants
to students who fall within given income requirements, and
which will be beefed up by $39 billion and indexed to inflation
starting in 2013.
Obama made some other big advances too. He got a $2,500
tuition tax credit passed, and oversaw the implementation of a
newGI Bill, signed by his predecessor, with the most generous
terms sinceWorldWar II. He vastly simplified the bafflingly
complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA,
eliminating roughly a quarter of the questions and attracting
33 percent more applicants in just two years. Historically black
colleges and universities got a $2.6 billion windfall from the
savings freed up by the student-loan reform.
The president indisputably elevated the profile of those
long-suffering community colleges, and announced his goal
of raising graduation rates by 2020 to restore the nation’s
global primacy in the proportion of college-educated 25- to
34-year-olds. He secured a $2 billion earmark for the Labor
Department to hand out over four years
for career training by community colleges
and other postsecondary institutions. And
his EducationDepartment started cracking
down on practices such as incentive
payments to student recruiters, with rules
that were clearly aimed at for-profit colleges
the General Accounting Office had caught
misleading applicants.
Even these accomplishments provoke
some critics.The stimulus funds for higher
education kept the lights on and avoided
layoffs. But, unlike the Race to the Top
program (under which $4 billion of federal
stimulus money was awarded to primary
and secondary schools in a competitive
process to reward reform), the stimulus funds came with
comparatively few strings, other than that states had to use
them to provide the same level of funding they had in 2006.
“That’s a big string,” saidMartha Kanter, U.S. undersecretary of
education for postsecondary, vocational and adult education,
and federal student aid, and herself the former chancellor of a
community college district.
One exasperated advocate for higher education reform
argues that the stimulus grants effectively doubled, if only
temporarily, federal spending on higher education, offering an
unprecedented and likely not-to-be-repeated chance to push
for greater productivity, curbs or downright caps on tuition,
and operational efficiencies. “One place they had the money
was the stimulus, and they didn’t use it,” he said. “Instead of
using it to incentivize things, they just put the money out there
and said, ‘Spend it.’”
But others say that practical considerations made it all
but impossible to create a stimulus-fueled Race to the Top in
higher education—never mind that universities and colleges
adamantly oppose the idea of any further federal involvement
in their business. For one thing, said BenMiller, a policy analyst
at theWashington think tank Education Sector, there was great
urgency. “In an ideal world you would have seenmore strings
attached” to the stimulus money, Miller said. “[But] there
was such a need to get it done and out the door as quickly as
possible that that would have been tough given the timeframe
they were working with.”
Nor does higher education track the sort of benchmarks
readily available in the world of primary and secondary
schools—whether K–12 students can read at grade level, for
example, and how they do on tests—said Robert Zemsky,
founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute
for Research onHigher Education. And without measures,
it’s impossible to set standards, something the people in
Obama’s EducationDepartment were beginning to find out,
to their frustration, as they worked on crafting new higher
education regulations. Besides, Zemsky said, if you tie funding
to results in higher education, universities can simply rig the
President Obama’s goal—called the American Graduation
Initiative—is to boost the nation from tenth place in the
world to first by 2020 in the proportion of young adults with
university degrees.
Obama has placed
higher education near
the top of a crowded
agenda. He has spoken
often and unusually
personally about
the value of his own
further education.
Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk
The Obama administration has “demonstrated a willingness to
impose more federal control than I think is necessarily desirable,”
says Terry Hartle, of the American Council on Education.
Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk