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Obama’s First Year: Many Ideas, Some Achievements

For many higher education leaders, President Barack Obama’s first year presented a watershed moment to outline new goals and raise the visibility of postsecondary issues. Now, however, the task is to get more of these ideas out of the proposal stage and into law.

“We have a president who understands the value of education and he has put a lot of the prestige of his presidency into closing the gaps that students of color and low-income kids have faced for generations,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund.

But the president has yet to make his goals of raising college graduation rates, providing more for student aid and strengthening the educational pipeline reality. “He’s had a very focused education agenda,” Lomax says. “Now we want to see this agenda move forward.”

Reflecting on the president’s first year in office, analysts see progress but also challenges. On the plus side, many leaders cited the economic stimulus bill, the K-12 Race to the Top program and House approval of an Obama-endorsed higher education bill. On the other side of the ledger, the long, heated debate over health care reform has sapped momentum on domestic policy.

Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, says he was disappointed the administration took on so many contentious issues — health care, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay — so early in its first year. He says he hopes the administration focuses on more “doable” legislative priorities to build bipartisan support and restore momentum. “The goal has to be more realistic, moving ahead one step at a time.”

In talking with education experts about the president’s first year in office, education leaders focused on these issues:

The Stimulus: While the $787 billion stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), barely cleared Congress, most analysts say it has served a significant purpose.

The bill included more than $100 billion for education, including money to prop up ailing state budgets. “It helped our public institutions avoid larger layoffs,” says Nathaniel Moses, senior vice president for governmental and international affairs at the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Education (NAFEO). While most public institutions suffered some cutbacks, ARRA helped protect jobs and education programs.

“They took the opportunity in the stimulus bill to move ahead on meaningful change,” adds Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., group. While shoring up state and local economies, the bill also provided $5 billion for the new Race to the Top fund, a K-12 program that is prompting states to undertake significant reforms if they want this money.

“He could have easily put education off. That’s not what he did. He made it one of his priorities,” Carey says.

The bill was not popular across the political spectrum, however. Dr. Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), says Race to the Top represented just $5 billion of the massive stimulus bill. The rest went to the status quo, he says. “We borrowed $100 billion [for education] and it’s remarkable how few questions have been answered.”

Student aid and SAFRA: Obama has unveiled a range of higher education proposals, including $12 billion to bolster the role of community colleges in work-force development and as a pathway to a four-year degree. Another $3 billion would go to a college-completion fund, part of a goal to have the U.S. lead the world in college graduates by 2020.

Moses says the college-completion objective for 2020 is an ambitious “Kennedyesque” goal, similar in tone to President John F. Kennedy’s goal to land a man on the moon in the 1960s. “The president should be credited with raising expectations for student performance, kindergarten through college,” he says.

Many of these concepts are now in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), a higher education bill that also includes large annual funding increases for minority-serving colleges and universities over the next decade. The House-approved SAFRA is still pending in the Senate, where it was to be taken up after Congress approved a health care bill.

To pay for these investments, SAFRA would end federal subsidies to banks participating in student loan programs.

“The student loan reforms are historic,” Carey says. “And if properly implemented, this new emphasis on community colleges and graduation is significant.”

Still, the lack of final action — and the continuing tension in Washington — makes it difficult to forecast the end result. “There’s been a lot of activity,” says Dr. Mark Schneider, another AEI education scholar, “but not much to show for it.”

Other issues: The president’s proposed three-year freeze on domestic spending may harm some favored initiatives. However, minority-serving colleges continue to push for an aid program to bridge the digital divide at their institutions. Congress authorized the program in 2007 but has yet to provide funding.

Minority-serving institutions also are looking forward to the Obama administration’s executive orders on historically Black colleges, Hispanic education and tribal colleges. New administration appointees spent much of last year touring the country to gather input from the field about how to increase the effectiveness of various White House initiatives on these issues.

“We’ve had a lot of conversation, but we haven’t yet seen the transformation,” Flores says.

Still, most MSIs believe the administration is watching out for them.

“We have enjoyed a close relationship with the administration,” Moses says. “We believe the administration shares our concerns.”

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