Obama Administration Could Mean More Money, Scrutiny

Youth expect Obama to deliver on college affordability, but that may mean more oversight of colleges.

With the Barack Obama era fast approaching in the nation’s capital, postsecondary education advocates are preparing for an onslaught of new legislation while also making plans to work with new leadership at the U.S. Department of Education.

“We need to fasten our seat belts,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. While higher education leaders often lamented the lack of action by the Bush administration, he says, President-elect Obama’s team is expected to take a more hands-on approach that may bring both positives and negatives.

“We’re going to see a much more activist U.S. Education Department,” Nassirian tells Diverse. Although this effort may lead to increased funding — Obama favors more financial aid for college — it could also bring greater oversight of colleges. “You’re going to get more attention, but also potentially more regulation. That could be a negative.”

Among other proposals, Obama has called for a $4,000 tax credit for students who perform 100 hours of community service annually for two years. He also seeks more federal help for community colleges and greater use of direct government loans for college rather than reliance on bank-supported lending. Of particular interest on minority education, he has favored federal aid for predominantly Black colleges and universities, or colleges that are not historically Black but enroll high numbers of Black students.

But with the economy in dire straits, the new administration may have to pare its education wish list. “There may be more money,” Nassirian says, “but the overall budget picture is pretty tight.”

One front-burner issue is Obama’s selection of a U.S. secretary of education. The list of names circulating among advocates and the media range from former generals and cabinet members to superintendents of large city school districts.

“We’ve heard everyone from Colin Powell to university academics,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund. While not offering a prediction, Lomax says it is imperative that the next secretary have a goal of greater college access and success.

“The priority is to ensure that more Americans attend and graduate college,” he tells Diverse. Yet part of reaching that goal is creating an effective K-12 education system and an educational “continuum” from preschool through college.

“Then we need to make sure that more low-income and minority students are successfully navigating that curriculum,” Lomax adds.

Presidents rarely tap a secretary based on his or her expertise in higher education, according to Nassirian. Yet, despite the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal role in K- 12 education is relatively minor. “Most secretaries have a charge to do something on K-12,” he says. “But most of the time, they can only use the bully pulpit.”

For colleges and universities, a more important decision may be Obama’s choice for undersecretary of education, the department’s third highestranking job that includes oversight of higher education plus career and technology education. Another key post is assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

“Whoever gets these jobs will have the greatest impact,” Nassirian says. Yet those decisions are not likely until the president first selects a cabinet secretary. The best-case scenario for colleges is that Obama nominates a secretary by year’s end and then selects an undersecretary early in 2009. “You don’t want this position [undersecretary] vacant for a year,” he says.

As advocates monitor the presidential transition, there is also recognition that Obama will face pressure to act on college costs. When touring campuses this fall, United States Student Association President Carmen Berkley noted that Obama campaign literature focused heavily on college affordability, and students responded by showing up at the polls. Early data showed that young people represented 18 percent of the electorate, while the population of senior citizens age 65 and older was only 16 percent.

“There were more of us turning out to vote than the traditional older voting population,” Berkley says. As a result, youth have some expectations of change.

“We’re graduating with insurmountable amounts of debt. For many, even public college is unaffordable,” she says. Priorities should include major increases in the Pell Grant to move it toward the newly authorized $9,000 level — almost double the current appropriation. “Education is cyclical,” she says. “If we fix that, other things will fall into place.”

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