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The House's New Face on Higher Ed

February 16, 2007

When Democrats won control of Congress in November, the change promised the return to power of some familiar names to many college leaders, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the once and current chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Rep. George Miller of California, who has been a visible and vocal presence as the top Democrat on the House of Representatives higher education subcommittee throughout this decade and now heads the full Education and Labor Committee.

But one of the leading voices on higher education in the 110th Congress promises to be Rubén Hinojosa, about whom many college and university officials probably know relatively little. Hinojosa, who represents a Texas district that runs from south of San Antonio through Kingsville to a swath of the state's border with Mexico, will head the committee's Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness.

Growing up in the heavily Hispanic region, much of which struggles economically, has shaped Hinojosa's worldview -- and his legislative agenda in Congress, including in higher education. Until now, he has been known primarily as a strong advocate for federal programs aimed at colleges that serve large numbers of Hispanic students. But as chairman of the Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness, Hinojosa's areas of interest -- and influence -- are about to broaden significantly. He agreed to answer some questions from Inside Higher Ed:

Q. You emerged from a part of the country that has lagged economically and in terms of educational opportunity. How did your experiences growing up in South Texas shape your views on American higher education? 

A. My background has a great deal to do with my resolute belief in the power of education. I hail from a family of immigrants. My parents came to this country when their families fled the Mexican revolution in 1910. Despite not having many educational opportunities themselves, my parents put a high premium on education for all of us. They understood intuitively that education was the path to a better life. They even picked up and moved our family to another town with better educational opportunities when they saw that we were languishing in inferior, segregated schools. As a result, every one of my parents’ 11 children graduated from high school; half of us graduated from college.

It’s also important to remember that for most in my region, college was not even in the realm of possibility. That was until the G.I. bill. With G.I. benefits, colleges had to accept our returning veterans -- rich, poor, black, Mexican -- they had to take them all. For me, college became possible because these veterans went to college with their G.I. benefits. Our nation became smarter, stronger and richer as a result of this egalitarian investment in education.

Q. Creating educational opportunity for Hispanic young people has topped your legislative record on education policy in Congress so far. How much progress have you seen on that front, and what can be done to close the educational gap that at times seems to be growing rather than shrinking?

A. I have to admit that I am impatient with the progress we have made. It seems that we continually struggle with the same battles. That said, we have moved forward in some areas. We have greater numbers of students graduating from high school and entering college than ever before. The challenge is that our population is rising so fast that growing numbers do not result in growing percentages.

Q. What other higher education issues do you envision being priorities for you as chairman of the House higher education subcommittee? 

A. In many ways, this subcommittee on higher education is at the heart of the American Dream and keeping this nation competitive in the global economy. Our business is to make sure that all Americans can fully develop their talents and contribute to the great American success story.

With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we have the opportunity to launch a major expansion of postsecondary education opportunities, putting our nation on a solid economic footing for the future. The student loan interest rate reduction that we just passed with overwhelming bipartisan support is just one part of the solution. 

Other pieces of the puzzle we plan to address include the strengthening of academic preparation -- we have a high school graduation rate crisis in this country with only half of Hispanic and African-American students graduating on time and less than one-fifth prepared for college-level work.

We must also increase the amount of financial aid available to low- and middle-income students -- especially increasing the Pell Grant so that financial barriers do not keep students from enrolling in college. In 2003, more than 400,000 college-qualified low-income students did not enroll in a four-year college, and 170,000 did not enroll in any college at all because of financial barriers, according to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. This is unacceptable.

We must also address the fact that too many American students who enter college fail to finish. Currently, only about one-third of students enrolling in a community college with the goal of transferring to a bachelor’s degree program ever make the transfer. Any higher education reform we make this session will be a waste of time unless we emphasize degree completion.

Lastly, our subcommittee will also work to strengthen our teaching workforce. I look forward to working with my colleagues on ways to improve teacher preparation and on-going professional development.

Q. President Bush's 2008 budget would increase the maximum Pell Grant but do so in part by eliminating the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program and other aid for students. Do you agree with the underlying principle of that proposal that students would be better served by a simpler financial aid system with fewer programs?

A. The President's recommendations were at best uneven in their efforts to further advance the goal of making a higher education more attainable. On the one hand, the administration calls for an increase in Pell Grants; on the other, it slashes campus-based aid programs and leaves colleges fewer tools to help students. I don't believe that eliminating student aid programs is the best way to serve students. So while there were some positive signals, the administration's overall budget proposal on education was once again inadequate.

Q. What were your impressions of the report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education? Did you feel that its findings accurately captured the strengths and weaknesses of higher education as you see them, and that its recommendations, if adopted, would improve the situation? What did the report get right and wrong? 

A. The recommendations of Secretary Spellings' Commission on the Future Higher Education will be part of the broad discussion on the Higher Education Act.  However, it is important that we not lose sight of the core federal role -- that is to ensure that low-income and first-generation college students have access to our institutions of higher education. 

Q. What are the biggest strengths and the biggest weaknesses of American higher education now?

A. Our graduates’ capacity for innovation is perhaps our greatest strength. American higher education attracts the best minds from around the world. Our greatest weakness is that we are not reaching out to our fast-growing, high-minority, low-income communities on the scale that we need to in order to remain the best in the world. We are leaving way too much talent undeveloped.

Q. Some college leaders have seen Republicans as the "accountability" party on higher education, and seem to be hoping that a Democratically controlled Congress will focus more on increasing spending for student aid programs and less on college prices, student outcomes and other performance issues. Do you envision the subcommittee, under your control, pursuing legislation to control college costs or require more reporting of student learning outcomes?

A. As I mentioned before, real payoff for a college education comes with degree completion. I am eager to work with the higher education community to find ways to improve college graduation rates.

We must be worthy of the faith that the American public puts in the power of higher education. We should not shy away from discussions on quality or on college costs. These are all part of the access and affordability puzzle. We must approach this reauthorization looking for solutions, not merely looking for problems.
 
Q. How would you assess the job that your Republican counterparts in Congress did on higher education issues in recent years? How well do you work with Rep. Ric Keller, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee? 

A. Last year, I was very disappointed when the majority cut $12 billion from student loan programs. These savings were not re-invested in helping low- and moderate-income families send their children to college. Instead, the $12 billion from the student loan program was used to underwrite the irresponsible deficit spending generated by tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  Those cuts severely hampered our nation’s ability to close the college access gap for Hispanic and other low and moderate income students.

However, I believe that we can work in a bipartisan manner to improve the Higher  Education Act in ways that will expand opportunity and raise the level of education attainment across the nation. I am looking forward to working with Congressman Keller and am confident that we will be able to advance common goals, such as increasing the Pell grant.

Q. How likely is it that Congress will complete work on the Higher Education Act this year? 

A. Our goal is to complete reauthorization this year.

Q. Any messages (or warnings?) you'd like to send to the men and women who work in higher education?

A. We need all of the stakeholders -- the federal government, states, the private sector, foundations, community organizations, and our colleges and universities -- to do more to fulfill the promise of the Higher Education Act in the 21st century. I invite all of you to be active participants in the process.

 

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