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Politicians Praise and Pressure Colleges

February 10, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Margaret Spellings was not among the politicians who spoke at the American Council on Education's annual meeting here Monday, but she was indirectly a factor in the warm reception received by those who did. Her replacement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is very much in his honeymoon phase, and he generated a standing ovation from the assembled college presidents before he even uttered a word, primarily because he is not Spellings. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who spoke an hour later, was similarly well-received, in large part because the Tennessee Republican (and former U.S. education secretary) fended off what he viewed as the Spellings Education Department's attempts to interfere inappropriately in higher education.

Although they hail from different parties and are unlikely to see eye to eye on everything -- they disagreed Monday about the wisdom of the education spending in the economic stimulus bill that advanced in the Senate late yesterday -- Duncan and Alexander made clear that they are both friends of higher education. But they had decidedly different messages for the college leaders they spoke to Monday, perhaps reflecting the depth and breadth of their experience in and around higher education and Washington.

Duncan, who is new both to higher education and to Washington, was full of praise for colleges in his speech, which was televised by C-Span. He acknowledged that there were problems -- low graduation rates, prices rising out of reach of many Americans, too many inadequate teachers being turned out by colleges of education -- but he raised those issues in the context of ensuring that the country continues to have "the greatest higher education system in the world."

And to the delight of the audience, he not only applauded the fact that the economic stimulus bill "includes a historic level of one-time education funding" that could double the budget of the Education Department for the next two years, but strongly suggested, in the speech and in comments to reporters afterwards, that the Obama administration would push to restore proposed spending on higher education that was cut from the version of the package that the Senate endorsed Monday. News reports had indicated that White House officials were heavily involved in the deliberations in which a group of Senate moderates crafted a proposal to cut more than $100 billion from the chamber's stimulus bill, leaving the impression that the the Obama administration might line up behind the Senate bill.

But in his comments Monday, Duncan noted that the Senate had included "only half of what the House approved" ($39 billion vs. $79 billion) in terms of the "stabilization fund" designed to help states plug major holes in their education budgets. The Senate version, he said, contains "not nearly as much as we need," and during the process in which Congress reconciles differences between the two bills, he said, "we need to push for every dollar we can get because public universities and community colleges desperately need that money to avert cuts." He added: "This is not just good education policy. It's good economic policy."

(In a related -- and positive -- development for colleges, the amendment approved by the Senate Monday eliminated language contained in the original Senate legislation that would allow states to use up to 39 percent of the $31.5 billion they would receive under the stabilization fund for "public safety and other government services" besides education. Such language appears in the version of the bill passed by the House, too.)

In addition, Duncan said, the Senate "astonishingly" eliminated $20 billion for modernizing educational facilities, $3.5 billion of which was to flow to colleges. (The House bill contains $6.5 billion for higher education.) That decision "makes no sense," Duncan said, since the facilities money "would create new jobs quickly."

Asked by reporters afterwards if he and President Obama would push hard to expand education funding in the stimulus bill, Duncan said that the White House would be directly involved in the talks and that he was confident that "everybody wants what's best" for education.

Warning From a Friend

In his own talk, Alexander made it clear that he is not at all confident that the stimulus bill will be good for higher education, or for the country. Doubling the budget for the Education Department "without any discussion at all ... about whether we should innovate" could actually deter colleges from the kind of innovation that the Republican senator said he believes is necessary if higher education is to avoid the fate that befell America's automobile industry. (Alexander said he had just been reading David Halberstam's The Reckoning, from 1986.)

That industry, Alexander said, ignored the warning from the former Michigan governor George Romney that "there is nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success," and higher education, long the envy of the world, risks losing its place if colleges do not find ways to lower what they charge students without impairing their quality.

Alexander is an adept politician, a trait he made clear that he learned -- or at least sharpened -- while he was president of the University of Tennessee. He won over the audience at the start of his speech with one of his favorite props: the five-foot-tall stack of boxes that, he said, contain the flood of federal regulations that govern colleges. Despite his best efforts, Alexander said, the Higher Education Act renewal that Congress passed last year will double that stack. While college leaders may be concerned about finances now, Alexander said, overregulation is really the "biggest threat" to a higher education system that is "one thing in our country that works and works well -- our secret weapon" in the international race for economic superiority.

That line earned Alexander hearty applause, which prompted him to say: "See, I learned while I was president of the University of Tennessee that if I opened by praising the faculty, everything would go well. So I haven't forgotten everything...."

After he'd praised the presidents and their institutions, one had a feeling that what followed might be tough medicine. And indeed, Alexander warned that the only way college leaders (with his help) would be able to persuade his Congressional colleagues that higher education deserved to be less regulated would be to address the thing they are most concerned about: the rising price of college.

Why has the stack of regulations grown from five feet to 10? Why have lawmakers begun meddling on issues such as college endowments, textbooks, graduation rates? "Because Congress is exasperated," Alexander said. "From their point of view, all they see is that every time they raise Pell Grants, you raise tuition."

Alexander offered his own suggestions for approaches higher education leaders might take to rein in price increases, such as offering a three-year bachelor's degree that "cuts one fourth of the time and up to one third of the cost" (the "higher ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car," he said, continuing his Detroit analogy, which he then pushed to the breaking point by suggesting that it would be an alternative to a "gas guzzling four-year course"). Or states should consider "making community college tuition free," Alexander said.

He acknowledged that his suggestions might not be workable or the best ideas out there, but the details were less important, Alexander said, than the idea that college leaders needed to "come up with an answer to [members of Congress] that you can make in 30 seconds.... You have to find some way to show you are taking tuition down, 'so give us support,' " he said.

"Use this time of retrenchment to try something new," he said. That will be the test, Alexander said, of whether "you're listening better than Detroit did in the '60s."

 

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