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Republican Education Plan Focuses on Rising College Costs

Sen. John McCain and party officials call for more transparency and restraint in college spending.

Sen. John McCain’s higher education policy follows his established “addition-by-subtraction” federal spending theme, promising more research dollars that will flow once Congressional earmarks are vanquished.

“Billions of dollars are spent on pork-barrel projects every year; significant amounts come from research budgets,” says presidential candidate McCain’s Web site. “Eliminating earmarks would immediately and significantly improve the federal government’s support for university research.”

Similarly, McCain of Arizona and the Republicans say the remedy for soaring college costs should not include unleashing billions more dollars in education spending.

Instead, the fix should include greater transparency of costs and performance, a financial aid system that is simpler to understand and easier to navigate, a greater role for community and career colleges, and innovative ways of applying distance education.

Their prescription stands in sharp contrast to a plan promoted by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is calling for a $4,000 tax credit for students in exchange for community service, along with simplifying funding.

“Part of the issue we are trying to address is that throwing more money at the problem is not solving it,” says Alexa Marrero, communications director for the Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Federal funding for higher education has increased significantly in recent years, “and yet college is still largely unaffordable for far too many people,” Marrero says. “We need to be looking very closely at what could be the unintended consequences of the current policies.”

Shining a spotlight on colleges whose tuition increases outstrip those of their peers is part of the solution, Republicans say, and so is sharing information about what’s working to limit costs while highlighting schools that make affordability a priority.

“Institutions report on hundreds of factors to the U.S. government every year, but the government does nothing with the information,” McCain’s platform says. “Making this information available to families in a clear and concise manner will help more students make more informed choices about higher education.”

The consensus view from a number of higher education policy experts is that neither McCain nor Obama has it all right — and neither plan does enough to put a substantial dent in college affordability.

“Both sides are terribly concerned with college costs, but neither side seems to have any concrete ideas about what to do,” says Dr. Thomas D. Parker, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

The Democrats want more government participation in college funding, the Republicans less. “They’re going to have to craft some middle position between turning it all over to the federal government and turning it all over to the private sector,” Parker says.

In addition to private sector participation in lending, Republicans also want a greater role for career colleges — the privately held institutions that train students for work in a variety of occupations, including law enforcement, information technology and health care.

Those schools say they can help minority and older students achieve their education and career objectives, and they are asking for federal aid that would put them on even turf with traditional colleges.

“Forty percent of our students are minorities,” says Harris Miller, CEO and president of the Career College Association. Miller attended the Republican convention held in St. Paul, Minn., in September and spoke to a luncheon crowd there gathered to honor Republicans who support career colleges. “Strong bipartisan support for federal funding for higher education is our No. 1 concern,” Miller says.

Republican differences with Democrats over funding mechanisms also reveal differences in the needs of students attending various types of institutions.

Community college students often don’t have enough income to absorb a $4,000 tax credit, says Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges. And any such tax credit should be available for childcare, transportation and book expenses in addition to tuition, she adds.

On the issue of academic freedom, McCain’s platform is silent. However, the Republican platform states that free speech on college campuses “is to be celebrated, but there should be no place in academia for anti-Semitism or racism of any kind. We oppose the hiring, firing, tenure and promotion practices at universities that discriminate on the basis of political or ideological belief.” It goes on to support the right of students and faculty “to express their views in the face of leftist dogmatism that dominates many institutions.”

On K-12 education, McCain promises school choice. “When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them. Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have that choice and their children will have that opportunity,” McCain said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.


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