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Presidential Hopefuls Gradually Roll Out Education Plans

Presidential Hopefuls Gradually Roll Out Education Plans
From student loans to college access programs, candidates offer proposals.
By Charles Dervarics

Even with the 2008 presidential election 17 months away, candidates are already rolling out improvement plans that may change the federal role in K-12 and higher education.

But is anyone listening?

“I have heard nothing yet that interests me,” says Thomas G. Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst with Postsecondary Education Opportunity. But he says it’s natural at this stage in the campaign to have more generalities than specifics.

“With the war, budget deficits and environmental issues, I do not expect the candidates to invest much time on higher education issues until things move further along and the field trims down,” he says.
Here, Diverse takes a look at the field of Democratic candidates. In a future issue, the magazine will examine the plans of Republican hopefuls.

This year alone, dozens of colleges have found themselves dealing with student loan scandals, and many institutions and lenders have agreed to reform questionable links between private loan companies and campus financial aid offices. Several presidential hopefuls have cited the scandals as an opportunity to remake the system and save money in the process.

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., both have proposed ending the Federal Family Education Loan program, which provides subsidies to help banks and lenders offer student loans. Instead, they would require students to borrow directly from the federal government through the competing Direct Loan program, which does not involve commercial lenders.

“One way we can help make college more affordable is by reforming a wasteful system of student loans that profit private banks at the cost of taxpayers,” Obama said in a recent announcement. “We shouldn’t be providing billions in taxpayer-funded giveaways to private banks.”

Most of the Democratic hopefuls make a strong case for Pell Grant expansion, which has become a priority for the party on Capitol Hill. President Bush has called for a Pell Grant increase next year, and the issue for many is not whether to increase the grant but how to pay for it. The growing consensus among the candidates to increase Pell awards makes it hard for some observers to see many differences.

Nonetheless, candidates have proposed their own favorite ideas for K-12 and higher education reform, some of which may gain more attention in the months ahead.

Edwards has proposed a national College for Everyone program in which students can get their first year of college fully paid for in exchange for 10 hours of part-time work per week in the community. He is basing the idea on one he helped create at Greene Central High School in North Carolina. Since the program’s inception, college-going rates at the school are up dramatically.

Among other plans, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., says she would increase funding for TRIO and GEAR UP programs to improve college access for minority and first-generation students. A borrower “bill of rights” would give students more protection from wasteful loan policies, and Clinton has said she would institute rules so that loan payments would not exceed a specific percentage of a college graduate’s income.

There also are other presidential candidates on the Democratic side with experience and proposals for education:

– U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware has called for Pell increases sufficient to cover the average tuition at public colleges.

– U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut helped create federal grant programs for after-school support services and for services to college students with children. He favors increases in the Pell Grant, reforms in No Child Left Behind and universal preschool.

– U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio says his policies would support full-day Head Start services, oppose school vouchers and preserve affirmative action. He has called for rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy to help make college more affordable.

– For New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, science, math and engineering are top concerns. The only Hispanic among the major candidates would create 250 new scientific academies around the country and increase support for doctoral programs in these fields. As governor, Richardson also has pushed for expanded preschool programs in New Mexico for low-income children.

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