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Unity Seen on Higher Ed Policy

Obama, Democratic Congress, on Same Track
University Business, Nov 2008

With the inauguration of Sen. Barack Obama as President in January and an increase in the Democratic majority in Congress, the higher education community probably can look forward to unified positions on policy issues ranging from student aid to the role community colleges and other institutions play in building the country’s workforce.

From statements Obama made during the campaign and the Democratic Party Platform, the new President and Congress should to be on the same track. But Washington insiders know that as with any election, it’s best to “believe it when you see it” when it comes to fulfilling campaign promises. This year, facing a national economic crisis, involvement in two wars, and other major issues like health care, energy and the environment, there will be no surprises if the new president gives higher education a lower priority.

In a campaign document, Obama cited soaring college costs and a “complicated maze of tax credits and applications” among the issues he will address. He pledged to create a universal and fully refundable tax credit that will ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is “completely free for most Americans.”

It would cover two-thirds of the cost of tuition at the average public college or university and make community college tuition completely free for most students, according to Obama. He said he will ensure that the tax credit is available to families at the time of enrollment by using the prior year’s tax data to deliver the credit when tuition is due rather than a year or more later when tax returns are filed. Recipients of the credit will be required to perform 100 hours of public service a year.

Obama also promised to simplify the financial aid application process by enabling families to apply just by checking a box on their tax form authorizing use of their tax information and eliminating the need for a separate application. The current Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is five pages long with 127 questions?“longer and more involved than many federal tax returns,” Obama declared.

In addition, he said he would end the Federal Family Education Loan program, funded privately by banks and lenders that receive subsidies and guarantees from the government. That program costs more per loan and provides no greater benefits than the publicly funded Direct Loan system, Obama maintained.

He also pledged to:

--Provide $25 million annually in matching funds for states to develop Early Assessment Programs to help 11th graders and their families ascertain if they are on track to be ready for college by the time they graduate from high school.

--Continue efforts to ensure that the maximum Pell Grant award for low-income students keeps pace with rising college costs.

--Strengthen community colleges by providing grants to analyze the types of skills and technical education in high demand from students and local industry, implement new associate degree programs to match emerging career demands, and reward institutions that graduate more students and also increase their numbers of transfer students to four-year institutions.

The Democratic Party Platform also focused on meeting workforce needs, particularly through community colleges. It read: “At community colleges and training programs across the country, we will invest in short-term accelerated training and technical certifications for the unemployed and under-employed to speed their transition to careers in high-demand occupations and emerging industries. We will reward successful community colleges with grants so they can continue their good work. We support education delivery that makes it possible for non-traditional students to receive support and encouragement to obtain a college education, including internet, distance education, and night and weekend programs.”

In an interview with a local radio station during a campaign stop in North Carolina, Obama also affirmed that he favored allowing the children of illegal immigrants to attend community colleges.

With the country ensnared in a financial crisis through the final part of the year, the higher education community gained a measure of relief in the $700 billion bailout bill that Congress enacted and President George W. Bush signed in October. As analyzed by the American Council on Education, the controversial economic recovery measure contained several tax extender provisions important to colleges and universities.

Among other things, the Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 included a two-year extension of the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses and the Individual Retirement Account (IRA) charitable rollover.

“During this time of economic insecurity, it is particularly important that the (tuition) deduction be extended now to help families manage the costs of attendance in their increasingly strained budgets,” ACE President Molly Corbett Broad wrote to members of the House and Senate before the final vote on the legislation.

Extension of the IRA charitable rollover, she wrote, “will help colleges and universities generate new or increased contributions to provide additional benefits to students, particularly financial aid.”

Alan Dessoff is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.

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