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The Republican Sweep And Higher Education

The Republican Sweep And Higher Education
By Julianne Malveaux

A full month after the November debacle, political pundits are still deconstructing the Democrat’s embarrassing loss at the polls. While the Republican “sweep” could hardly be called a mandate (some Senate races were decided by fractions of a percentage point), the outcome is that the Republicans hold a “trifecta,” if you will, or control of the White House, the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. There are no legislative checks and balances on the Republican agenda. Democrats may console themselves by saying that Republicans will now have to take responsibility for their actions, but they can do a lot of damage while they take responsibility.

Higher education may be a case in point. Both houses of Congress are gearing up for funding reauthorization of programs in the Higher Education Act, which will expire during the 108th Congress. With funding provided through 2003, everything is up for grabs in 2004. The size and awarding of Pell Grants, rules governing student loans, funds to support HBCUs (now funded at $361 million) and Hispanic-serving institutions (now funded at $86 million), issues of merit scholarships, taxation of student aid, distance education, college costs and prices, will all be discussed. With dozens of higher education organizations weighing in with their positions, with their lobbyists and advisory committees gearing up with special reports, it is likely that hearings will be both lengthy and impactful.

Leadership of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) will pass from Sen. Edward Kennedy’s, D-Mass., hands probably to the ranking Republican member, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. In addition to his role on the Senate HELP Committee, Gregg serves on several appropriations subcommittees and is the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce. Gregg’s record on education matters seems inoffensive. His official biography says he has “long been committed to improving the educational system in our country through greater accountability and expanded educational opportunities for all students, particularly those most in need.” He seems more focused on K-12 issues than higher education, and was a key player in Bush’s Leave No Child Behind Act.

Reading between the lines of the Gregg biography, he has embraced issues he feels strongly about, but essentially toes the party line on education issues. So far, the G.O.P. has been reluctant to help states that have been forced to cut higher education spending because of their economically precarious position. The Republican line also includes less access to higher education for recipients of public assistance. It is not clear whether Republicans will support an increased amount for the Pell Grant, though it is clear that the Pell Grant covers less and less of the basic cost of higher education.

Gregg is likely to defer many higher education issues to the Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training. During the 107th Congress, after the defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, the committee was headed by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., a passionate supporter of higher education access and affordability. He was joined by Democrats Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, Conn., and Tom Harkin, Iowa. Republicans Michael Enzi, Wyo., Jeff Sessions, Ala., and Mike DeWine, Ohio, rounded out the committee. It is not clear which of the Republicans will now assume leadership, but it’s clear that this Republican will play a major role in shaping the higher education reauthorization hearings and legislation. Frankly, I worry about the input of a member like Sessions, especially when it comes to discussing issues of access for African Americans to higher education.

The status of affirmative action programs (and, perhaps, their elimination) has always been on the back burner of the Republican agenda. With both houses of Congress, it is possible that an anti-affirmative action legislative agenda can be developed, and possibly included as an amendment in the higher education reauthorization. Count on the likes of California’s anti-affirmative action guru Ward Connerly to crawl out from under his favorite rock to push this agenda. And while all Republicans are not anti-affirmative action, this is one time some of us will miss Congressman J.C. Watts, R-Okla., since he tended to dampen anti-affirmative action fervor on his side of the aisle.

There’s a lot at stake here. More than 6,600 schools were eligible to participate in the Higher Education Act’s student aid programs in academic year 1998-99. These programs helped some 15.1 million students. More than $10 billion was spent on Pell Grants, and the federal government guaranteed an additional $38 billion in loans. Students of color, especially African American students, don’t get their fair share of these monies, which is why a discussion of educational access is important in the context of the higher education reauthorization. Among many well-meaning people, there are legitimate differences of opinion about ways financial aid should be delivered. However, I question the intent of those who do not think that access is an issue.

In any case, with Republicans in charge, higher education hearings will be led by those who favor balanced budgets (and tax cuts for the wealthy) over human development. This bodes ill for institutions of higher education, especially state institutions, already starved by troubled state budgets. The reauthorization process, set to begin in January, may also be swallowed by international concerns if the president continues to rush us to war.

But war or not, the reauthorization process will get under way in a month or so. We’d all better be vigilant and vocal about ways higher education and financial aid can change.

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