WASHINGTON -- For weeks, those who watch federal higher education policy have played, with varying degrees of excitement and nervousness, a parlor game unofficially called "Will Bob or won't he?" Bob as in Robert Shireman, the Clinton White House aide and student aid advocate who was widely expected throughout the last decade to become a central player in higher education policy whenever a Democrat took back the White House.
Shireman was named to be a key adviser to the transition team of then-President-elect Barack Obama in November, but he told many close colleagues at the time that he did not plan to take a full-time job in the administration because he and his family were firmly ensconced on the West Coast, where he has worked for several nonprofit groups on college access issues. When the department announced in February that Shireman would take on a three-to-six-month role advising Education Secretary Arne Duncan on higher education, he again rebuffed suggestions that he'd be coming to Washington for good: "I'm looking at this as a temporary job," he said.
But Monday, Duncan announced that Shireman would join the administration on a permanent basis, as deputy under secretary for postsecondary education, which a department spokesman described as a new position that would not require Senate confirmation, unlike the assistant secretary for postsecondary education job that many observers had expected Shireman to fill.
In the job, said spokesman John McGrath, Shireman will work with the newly appointed under secretary of education, Martha J. Kanter, to set the goals and establish policy for all of ED's higher education programs, including the office of postsecondary education and the Federal Student Aid office.
Shireman could not be reached for comment, and it is not clear what led him to change his mind about returning to the federal executive branch and Washington. He has been commuting from the Bay Area during his interim appointment, but has said he is loathe to do that permanently.
His appointment will be welcomed by most higher education lobbyists and advocates for students, with whom Shireman has worked closely and who generally see him as supportive of colleges and students. As founder and president of the Institute for College Access and Success, and before that as head of the higher education program at the James Irvine Foundation, Shireman pushed to make college more affordable for students from low-income families. As a White House aide, he helped implement the Hope and other higher education tax credits, and before that Shireman worked on higher education and other issues for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.
But fans of Shireman haven't been the only ones breathlessly waiting to find out whether he'd join the administration. For the last several weeks, analysts who track the for-profit higher education sector have regularly sought information from journalists and others about whether a Shireman appointment is likely, reflecting a perception among leaders in that sector that Shireman views for-profit colleges unfavorably and will promote policies that will hurt them (and, in turn, their stocks, which explains the analysts' interest.).
Over the years, Shireman has worked closely with consumer advocates on student loan and other issues, and many of them look askance on for-profit colleges because they believe some institutions use predatory recruitment practices to enroll low-income students who can't afford to pay for college. But he has not written or spoken widely about the career college industry, so it's not at all clear that he'll be the enemy to the sector that some might fear.
If advocates for for-profit colleges wonder if Shireman will take positions they don't like, supporters of the student loan industry don't have a lick of doubt. They were always nervous about a Shireman role in the administration, and his actions this winter while an adviser to Duncan have shown they were right to be. Shireman is widely seen as the architect of Obama's plan to kill off the guaranteed student loan program (see related Views article) and originate all loans out of the government's competing direct loan program, which was created when Shireman worked in the Clinton White House.
Lenders are gearing up to fight the Obama plan, but Shireman is banking on the fact that college leaders and Congressional Democrats will ultimately support it because it will free up tens of billions of dollars to ensure a regular and steadily growing stream of funding for the Pell Grant Program.
It is possible that Congressional supporters of the loan programs (and for-profit colleges) would have gunned for Shireman had he been nominated to a position (like assistant secretary for postsecondary education) that requires Senate confirmation.
But the latter job also entails significant amounts of day-to-day administrative duties, including overseeing sometimes mundane rule making procedures and other matters that aren't seen as playing to Shireman's strengths or his interests. So it may be more likely that Shireman was more inclined to move back to D.C. permanently for a job in which he'd have a freer hand in setting policy.
The new job would seem to fit the bill.