Funding concerns underscore key issues important to higher education as the second George W. Bush administration and a new Congress get under way in Washington.
With a tight budget, particularly for domestic programs, and a continuing administration focus on K-12, notably the No Child Left Behind Act, higher education is likely to get short shrift on dollars from the executive and legislative branches, according to Washington advocates for post-secondary institutions.
"Higher ed was in no sense of the word a priority or core interest" of the administration in its first term and that probably won't change, says Terry W. Hartle, senior VP of the American Council on Education (www.acenet .edu), which represents about 1,800 IHEs.
"So far, the administration has almost singularly focused on K-12. We have largely been the product of benign neglect," adds Donald Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (www.naicu.edu).
Congressional reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) is the most significant issue for postsecondary institutions, largely because about 75 percent of federal student aid comes through programs under the HEA.
While reauthorization seems assured, Congress could use the process to explore a wide range of issues, including Pell Grants, one of the HEA's major sources of aid for needy students, and measures that might be used to hold colleges and universities accountable for educational outcomes.
The Pell Grant issue heated up two days before Christmas when the Department of Education unveiled a new formula for calculating eligibility for college financial aid. The move will wipe out Pell Grant scholarships for up to 90,000 low-income students. Other federal and state aid programs to broader categories of college students also will be scaled back.
Congress has given strong bipartisan support to the Pell Grants in the past and the DOE announcement--surprising for its timing, if not its substance--brought sharp reaction from some lawmakers. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), in line to be the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has broad legislative oversight, said he would seek broader Pell Grant funding this year. Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) said he was "outraged that the Bush administration is going forward with these punitive cuts."
Even before DOE's announcement, Warren raised concerns that if Pell Grant funding does not increase, "it is going to have a really depressing effect on the overall funding for needy students."
Warren says reauthorization of the HEA is important not only for funding but also because of "the regulatory issues that tend to follow" whenever the measure is renewed.
Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, an independent advocacy organization for public education, says there may be attempts in the reauthorization process to assist trade schools and private companies that want to expand into higher education, and to change provisions relating to teacher training.
The administration and Congress also might try to bring accountability to higher education as they did to elementary-secondary. Hartle refers to a speech that Margaret Spellings, recently confirmed by the Senate as Bush's new education secretary, delivered at a conference in Texas before the November elections. According to Hartle, Spellings promised discussion about accountability in higher ed if Bush won a second term.
"She said they were not talking about forcing something down higher ed's throat, but since the taxpayers paid about $80 billion a year to finance higher ed, they felt they had a responsibility to have a discussion about accountability and results and performance," Hartle stated. "What that means operationally remains to be seen."
Warren suggests that it would be difficult to impose uniform accountability measures on colleges and universities because there are so many different types of post-secondary institutions. "Higher education is more complex than elementary-secondary," he says.
But he says Bush and the Congress should resist a move by proprietary institutions to eliminate some accountability programs that have worked effectively. He cites provisions Congress added to the HEA in 1992 after fraud and abuse problems developed in the Title IV student loan program. "It would be a substantial blow to the integrity of the Higher Ed Act if these provisions are now removed," Warren declares.
Hartle says more concrete signals about the administration's higher ed plans will emerge after the president "lays out a vision" for his second term in his State of the Union address to Congress.
Alan Dessoff is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.