How Will Education Funding and Policy Fare in a Republican Congress?

The day after voters swept House Republicans into the majority, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the presumptive new chairman of the chamber’s Education and Labor Committee, said that under his leadership the panel would “pursue education reform that restores local control, empowers parents, lets teachers teach and protects taxpayers.”

Dr. Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, says Kline’s statement suggests that there will be some focus on the needs of low-income and disabled students. Still, he is concerned that, if the GOP makes good on its promise to cut billions in discretionary, nondefense spending, higher education will be at the top of the list of things to cut. In addition, many members of the Tea Party movement, which played a major role in helping Republicans win the House, want to decrease all government spending and have expressed a desire to get rid of the Department of Education altogether.

“I’m worried about the $6 billion Pell Grant shortfall and what will happen to the program altogether. And, I’m afraid that it will fall into a pattern of ratcheting down the maximum award until it’s meaningless and won’t provide sufficient purchasing power to enable low-income students access to the institutions they choose to attend,” says Mitchem. “We’ve seen erosion of the Pell Grant in the past. President [Barack] Obama, to his credit, tried to correct the situation. I hope we don’t find ourselves falling into old patterns of not providing sufficient funds to keep grants competitive with respect to inflation.”

Robert Moran, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, agrees that Pell award amounts could be cut and says eligibility requirements also may change. He believes STEM funding is another area that may face reduction, even though it is important to both parties.

“It is, for the most part, a bipartisan issue, but it’s the funding levels they may disagree on,” Moran says.

That same theory could be applied to reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act. Both parties and the White House agree that there is need for significant reform, Moran says, “but will the tone of the language in [any legislation] they may have drafted in the back room change? Yes, and so will some of the priorities, which will be given a Republican slant.”

Based on Kline’s statement, that slant will likely include giving states more control and not forcing them to adopt common-core or similar standards, as Democrats would have. But Moran hopes that the legislation will ensure collaboration among elementary and secondary schools and the higher education sector.

“Looking at it as a pipeline issue and under the guise of the president’s 2020 goal, we need to make sure there’s continuity between high school and postsecondary education and the only way to do that is to make sure higher education is a collaborative partner in reform efforts,” Moran says.

During the 111th Congress, for-profit institutions faced a great deal of scrutiny, as questions arose over whether low-income and minority students were targets of overly aggressive recruitment efforts and whether all students were getting a valuable education that would lead to a successful career. It is widely believed that Senate Democrats, who maintained their majority, will continue to look closely at those issues but it is uncertain whether these schools will receive the same scrutiny in the House. There is, however, some concern that, if House Republicans explore the issue, they may try to expand the gainful-employment rule to include all higher education institutions.

Dr. Debra Humphreys, vice president of communications at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says this is an issue that the higher education community needs to monitor.

“There will be pressure in both the House and the Senate to expand that focus beyond the for-profits. This is a real issue that people in higher education need to know more about and push back on,” she says.

Sang Han, director of congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, warned that higher education institutions should prepare themselves to address questions about how effectively they’re using federal funding for financial aid and scientific research.

“I hope that the two parties can come together as they have in the past and continue to support the [two programs] as they have in the past, even in this very tight economic environment,” Han says. “But there will be greater oversight because there’s no money. Lawmakers will be basically saying, ‘We’ve given you X amount; what have you done with that money?’”

Humphreys also expressed concern about potential budget cuts that could affect higher education funding and research programs, because of the adverse impact on the nation’s efforts to be competitive.

“I will be interested in seeing how strongly and effectively the administration pushes that case, and whether Republican leadership accepts the argument that investments in education are about the future health of our economy and ability to compete in a global economic market.”