With the 110th Congress in business under new, if narrow, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Washington higher ed leaders are looking hopefully but cautiously at what the shift might mean for their priority issues.
"The change in leadership, particularly in the House, may pave the way for action on key community college priorities that have been held up by stark differences in legislation produced by the Republican-controlled House and the more bipartisan Senate," declared a post-election statement from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
Other organizations have voiced similar outlooks. Higher ed "will be an important topic in public policy discussions at the federal and state levels," said a statement from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).
What direction those discussions will take in Washington is up in the air until the House and Senate begin to address specific issues with specific proposals. But there are some signs of what some of that legislation might be.
Although budget issues, along with the Iraq war, are expected to dominate the first session of the new Congress, Democrats are expected to follow up on 2006 campaign pledges to make college more affordable and accessible for the middle class. Steps they have proposed include increasing funding for Pell Grants, cutting the interest rate on student loans, and developing a way to expand the use of tax credits to offset education expenses.
On the campaign trails, House Democrats aggressively called for a substantial increase in Pell Grants, which the government awards to low-income college students. The grants have not been increased for six years, and Democrats want to boost the maximum amount from $4,050 to at least $5,100 to keep pace with the jump in college costs. Democrats say that would help 5.72 million students a year. It would cost the government $17.3 billion.
AACC is among the higher ed groups cheering that potential move and promising to pressure Democrats to make good on the promise. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is a long-time supporter of Pell Grants, the organization points out.
House Democratic leaders also indicated that they'd seek to cut in half the interest rate on federal Stafford student loans, from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent. They also want to drop the rate from 8.5 percent to 4.25 percent for the Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) program, which offers loans for up to the full cost of a child's college attendance.
The resulting College Student Relief Act was approved in the House during the Democrat's ambitious "first 100 hours" by a vote of 356 to 71.
While the bill is still pending in the Senate, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the new leader of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has been a powerful liberal advocate on education issues.
Also in the loan area, AACC notes that Democrats have supported giving institutions additional student grant funds if they switch to the Direct Loan (DL) program rather than the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program. Their rationale: The DL program costs the federal government less than the private sector-financed FFEL, so students attending schools participating in the DL program should benefit.
But the banking lobby, representing an industry that profits from student loans, will aggressively oppose moves like that. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), who chaired the House Education Committee in the last session and now is its ranking minority member, told the Consumer Bankers Association at a Washington-area meeting that he would fight to ensure bankers' input on decision-making about student loan policy.
Finally, Democrats say they'll seek a tuition tax credit worth up to $3,000 to replace a mish-mash of existing tax deductions. They maintain that the credit will be worth more, equivalent to a $12,000 tax deduction for most middle-class families.
AACC is in the forefront of organizations supporting that move, but leaders say the concept of providing a federal deduction for higher education tuition retains a "tenacious hold" on legislators. AACC officials maintain that deductions do little for most community college students, however; their tuitions are low in the first place and they're generally low-income, receiving less tax benefit from a deduction.
At a final hearing of the Senate Finance Committee before Congress adjourned in December, testimony on taxes and tuition assistance offered an early look at some of the issues that the new Congress will face this year as it attempts to streamline federal aid programs. In prepared remarks, Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University (D.C.), underscored the importance of the federal tax exemption to the country's private higher education institutions. She implored the committee to distinguish "the unusual stories of elites from the mainstream needs" of the majority of the 17 million students currently enrolled in American colleges.
Bridget Terry Long, associate professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, urged legislators in her written statement to focus on grant programs rather than "the less effective and more complicated forms of aid, like tax credits and student loans."
Other education groups have weighed in with their priorities, as well. For example, NAFSA: Association of International Educators has set out three major initiatives: comprehensive legislation to restore U.S. competitiveness for international students and scholars; the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship program, to boost the number of American students who study outside the U.S.; and comprehensive immigration reform.
While higher ed groups are hopeful about their agendas, they also are realistic. "It is impossible to predict how successful the Democrats will be in achieving their legislative priorities," AASCU declared in a statement. Since many elected Democrats were middle-of-the-road or conservative candidates, the Senate has only a razor-thin Democratic majority, and a Republican remains in the White House.
"With a divided government for the first time in a dozen years, almost any outcome is possible," the AASCU statement concludes. Also, what Democrats want will be "extremely expensive to fund."
David Ward, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), notes that other Democratic initiatives could range from enacting new reporting requirements on legacy admissions to conducting hearings into the Department of Education's oversight of student loan programs.
Still unclear, Ward adds, is what the new political environment means for the much-delayed reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which contains all the major federal student financial aid programs. The measure expired in 2004, and although the House passed a reauthorization bill and the Senate approved reauthorization at the committee level, no measure was enacted. Instead, the last Congress extended HEA repeatedly on a short-term basis, currently through June 30 this year.
Significantly, the loan programs as they stand now were reauthorized in deficit reduction legislation that Congress enacted a year ago. Now, some leaders of higher ed groups believe that with student loan interest rate cuts being a major discussion this year, that could further reduce the impetus to pass a full-fledged reauthorization bill.
Also unclear in the new political climate is what will happen to the various recommendations of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the Action Plan that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings developed in response to its final report. The recommendations cover a broad range of issues in areas, including completion rates, learning outcomes, accreditation, college costs, and transfer of credit.
A key question, as AASCU sees it, is whether the education department's negotiated rulemaking process will take on recommendations of the secretary's plan or stay focused on what it is obligated to do, which is to implement two new federal grant programs that Congress enacted last year-Academic Competitiveness, and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) programs. When the education department released its proposed rules for the programs last summer, Washington's higher ed associations objected to several key elements that they said would make the programs unworkable unless they were changed.
The AACC statement notes that in the recently uncompleted HEA reauthorization process, Republicans, particularly in the House, showed "a predilection for both criticizing colleges and involving the federal government in their operations." Democratic legislators have repeatedly voiced their strong concerns about rises in college tuitions and AACC says the new Democratic leadership on the committees overseeing the HEA also may want to scrutinize the operations of higher education.
Although the 2006 elections dramatically altered the political scene in Washington, it is "difficult to speak with any certainty" about their implications for higher education, Ward wrote to the presidents of other higher ed associations in Washington. That was the prevailing view as the new Congress began.
Alan Dessoff, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance writer.