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‘Change Takes Time’

‘Change Takes Time’
While the names have changed — and some of the laws — many age-old debates in higher education have remained the same over the past 20 years

By Charles Dervarics

In the 1980s, a Republican president led a defense build-up in response to foreign crises, and his education secretary chided the establishment on school reform. Legal experts debated the merits of affirmative action, while advocates questioned the growing reliance of students on loans instead of grants to finance a college education. Sound familiar? While the names have changed — and some of the laws — many of the age-old debates have remained the same in the years since the first editions of Black Issues In Higher Education. In fact, some argue that the federal government did more for low-income students of color two decades ago than it does now.
“We have driven down the ladder of opportunity,” says Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. A staunch advocate of need-based financial aid, Mortenson says such aid represented 86 percent of the student aid budget in the mid-1980s. The rate is now 52 percent, due largely to the declining value of Pell Grants and programs such as the HOPE Scholarship that emphasize merit rather than low-income status.
“Now we focus on holding the line,” he said, rather than expanding programs.
To be sure, much about federal higher education policy has changed in the past two decades. Aid to historically Black colleges and minority-serving institutions has increased greatly, and these institutions have greater visibility in the eyes of policy-makers. After years of stagnation, federal Pell Grants also received important increases in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But on many issues — affirmative action among them — the arguments continue. “I’m surprised that we are still debating affirmative action,” says Shirley Wilcher, a former House of Representatives aide and Clinton administration official who now advises clients on diversity issues.
In the ebb-and-flow of policy debates, however, here are a few of the more significant trends affecting college access and students of color from 1984 to 2004:
• HBCUs and minority-serving institutions: The last two decades have seen some impressive growth in support for these institutions. Federal support for HBCUs has tripled since 1988, to more than $270 million. In 1992, Congress added a new program for Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). Significantly, political leaders in both parties talk about the importance of HBCUs, HSIs and tribal colleges, as evidenced by presidential advisory committees and partnership agreements that promote links between government and minority-serving institutions.
HBCUs and HSIs also work more closely together today after a period of conflict in the mid-1990s. Credit goes to initiatives such as the Alliance for Equity in Higher Education, a foundation-funded effort to promote collaboration among Black, Hispanic-serving and tribal colleges. While each group has unique issues, they share similar challenges to increase access and achievement for students of color.
Despite these gains, of course, many of these colleges and universities still have enormous needs. HBCUs, for example, continue to face uphill fights for aid to preserve historic buildings and bridge the digital divide, among other issues. Those debates are no easier in the current budget environment.
• Student aid: Passage of the HOPE Scholarship and the lifelong learning tax credit in 1997 changed the landscape in at least two ways. First, it showed lawmakers’ willingness to help middle-income families, perhaps at the expense of needy low-income students. Secondly, it prompted advocates to push successfully for increases in the Pell Grant shortly thereafter. But tuitions also have increased steadily during the past 20 years, outstripping Pell’s gains. As a result, Mortenson notes, Congress could double the maximum Pell Grant and still not restore the program’s original purchasing power.
• Affirmative action: Critics of the practice increasingly have used the courts to gain favorable decisions, a strategy familiar to civil rights veterans. “They learned a lot from our own experience,” Wilcher says. While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the University of Michigan case may uphold affirmative action for another generation, the disagreements continue. In 1990, the Education Department under President George H.W. Bush proposed an elimination of race-conscious scholarships. Conservative groups continue to take up that mantle today.
The 20-year period also has had its share of colorful newsmakers and strong advocates. A look at the latter probably starts with former U.S. Rep. Gus Hawkins, D-Calif., who chaired the House education committee during the 1980s. Hawkins successfully held off efforts by the Reagan administration’s Justice Department to roll back affirmative action. “He’s a hero,” Wilcher says.
Many advocates also cite Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has steadily fought for increased education funding, as well as former President Bill Clinton for continuing to support affirmative action despite a conservative House and Senate.
From the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., heads a list of lawmakers who have steadfastly supported low-income students, through dramatic speeches and detailed legislative plans. Education debates also are richer thanks to Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., who set the foundation for the GEAR UP program and often thinks “outside-the-box” on education policy.
Twenty years from now, however, rest assured that many issues from the 1980s will remain on higher education’s front burner. As Wilcher notes when talking about affirmative action, “Change takes time.” 

— Charles Dervarics is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va., who has covered federal education policy for more than 15 years, contributing to Black Issues In Higher Education, Community College Week, Education Daily and other

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