WASHINGTON -- As Americans head to the polls today, the implications that their votes hold for federal higher education policy aren’t likely to drive them toward a candidate. Nonetheless, the outcomes of today’s Congressional elections will shape debates on higher education for the next few years.
Polls and prognostication suggest that Republicans will easily capture a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Races for several of the 39 Senate seats up for grabs today are too close to predict and may be for days. Regardless of which party holds the majority, it’s expected to be a slim one.
With Republicans leading the House and possibly the Senate, federal issues of key importance to colleges and universities won’t be top priorities, but they may get some attention, particularly as budget lines primed for slashing and as areas of oversight that will stick in Democrats’ craws.
Pell Grants, tougher oversight of for-profit colleges and better accountability for research funding may not on their own be top priorities for the 112th Congress, but they are likely to creep into some of the broader discussions of fiscal responsibility that will inevitably dominate discussion. They’re already surrounded by debates symptomatic of the scarcity of federal funds and will continue to be examined with microscopic precision, especially with a Republican majority in one or both chambers.
In September, a group of House Republican leaders including Representative John Boehner (Ohio), the party’s apparent choice for Speaker of the House, issued “A Pledge to America,” a document that offered broad strokes of what Republicans would do with a majority. Most important for higher education is the group’s vow to cut non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels and to impose tougher oversight of programs already in place. If they keep that promise, many of the education and research programs that offer funding to students and colleges could face cuts.
Significant new legislation is unlikely, said Robert L. Moran, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities: “There isn’t anything on the horizon for higher ed in the next year or so.” While the 110th Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act and the 111th passed the reconciliation bill that included several measures from the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, including the end of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, he doesn’t see the 112th having much time or will to examine higher education.
The top education priority for Congress -- and most likely for the Obama administration -- over the next two years will almost certainly be renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Power to Committees
A non-fiscal change expected in a Republican House is a greater reliance on committees.
Boehner, who chaired the Education and Labor Committee from 2001 to 2006, has said he would like to see committee chairs gain power under his leadership. “We need to stop writing bills in the speaker’s office,” Boehner told National Journal.  “Too often, in the House right now, we don’t have legislators; we just have voters. Under Speaker Pelosi, 430 out of the 435 members are just here to vote and raise money. That’s not right. We need to open this place up -- let some air in. We have nothing to fear from letting the House work its will -- nothing to fear from the battle of ideas. That starts with the committees. The result will be more scrutiny and better legislation.”
Boehner has close ties to student lenders and has consistently opposed Democrats’ efforts to reform the industry. In March, during the battle over the health care reconciliation bill that included the elimination of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, he made clear where his allegiances stood. “[I]f you look at this student loan provision in there, they eliminate every bank in the country and all private student loan lenders so the government can do it instead,” he told Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren. 
As education committee chair, Boehner collaborated with the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), his counterpart on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on the No Child Left Behind bill for elementary and secondary education. But Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), the current chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, last week told The Washington Post  that Boehner is unlikely to repeat that kind of collaboration as speaker. "That was in a galaxy far, far away, in a place that doesn't exist anymore," Miller said. "Don't translate that one-off moment into lasting bipartisanship.”
In the House Education and Labor Committee, “the staff on the Republican side is very, very good,” said one former Senate Democratic staffer who asked not to be named because her comments might hurt her current employer “in this incredibly partisan environment.” Many of those staff members worked for the committee when it was headed by Boehner, but the team surrounding Representative John Kline (R-Minn.), the panel’s likely chairman, is less known, as are Kline’s views on many higher ed issues.
‘Bang for the Buck’
The Pell Grant program, which has grown from $13.7 billion in 2007-8 to more than $25 billion in 2009-10 and is continuing to rise, was a source of concern for close to a dozen people contacted for this article. The program already faces a shortfall of nearly $6 billion that Congress must find a way to close soon, and demand for the program is soaring as the economy continues to founder.
“Under a Republican Congress, Pell will certainly be revisited and reconsidered in a substantial way,” said Moran, of AASCU. Whether that means raising eligibility standards, cutting the maximum award level or drastically reshaping the Pell program remains to be seen.
A senior Republican Senate staffer echoed that view. When it comes to finding ways to cut federal student aid spending, said the Republican Senate staffer, “if John Kline doesn’t fire the first volley, Paul Ryan in the budget committee is going to.”
Members of Congress in both parties are looking more closely at the return on investment for federal dollars and may be dissatisfied with what they see. While Democrats have thus far focused on for-profit colleges, there is the potential for them -- and, more likely, for Republicans -- to consider what they’re getting for all those billions of dollars invested in Pell, and billions more invested elsewhere in higher education. Those sentiments, the staffer said, will be especially strong among new members who align themselves with the Tea Party or are otherwise fiscally conservative.
While the new batch of members may bring fresh energy to the questioning of Pell and other federal higher ed programs, it’s to be expected regardless. "When fiscal resources are tighter, the government tends to look more toward bang for the buck and regulation,” said M. Matthew Owens, vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities. “We are in a fiscal climate now that is very difficult and we have a debt that clearly the American public is paying more and more attention to,” and it is only natural that “policy makers will ask more questions about the accountability of the expenditure of federal funds” at colleges and universities, he said.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said he doubts higher education will be much of a priority for a new Congress that will be focused on reducing the federal deficit while still caught up in partisan fights. Even so, he said, “the cost of college, accountability and transparency” are likely to come into play as members on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers look for ways to stabilize or cut spending.
Then, all of higher education, and not just the for-profits, will face challenges. If Congress takes a closer look at issues of quality in higher education, Moran said his association’s members – state colleges -- as well as community colleges and historically black colleges and universities are “going to run into political hurdles.” A lobbyist for private colleges said the same could be said for some independent institutions, some of which have high sticker prices and low graduation rates.
Should higher education be questioned in any substantive way by the next Congress, it’s unlikely to happen in a bipartisan way, Hartle said. “Partisanship is likely to continue to be the defining feature of the Washington policy world and that will tend to increase the closer we get to the 2012 elections,” he said.
But some observers hope that bipartisanship will reach at least as far as some of higher ed’s key issues.
Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, said that he considers Pell, the TRIO Programs and other initiatives aimed at low-income students to be areas where there is support on both sides of the aisle. “These programs are the property of the Democratic and the Republican parties,” he said. “Too often we don’t think about the American family, but here is an area where we do. I think Republicans got that in the ’90s and hopefully they’ll get it in this century as well.”
“Both parties tend to be supportive of the research agenda,” said Owens, of the AAU. The path ahead for the next Congress is less certain with Boehner and other Republicans pledging to make big discretionary spending cuts, and could "portend some difficult times ahead for research funding." There is, though, there is some "waiting and seeing" on whether non-defense research will be protected from cuts. In the past, Republicans have vowed to cut spending but have resisted cuts to politically popular programs, including student aid and biomedical research.
Discourse in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has become increasingly partisan in recent months as Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the panel’s chair, has pursued an investigation of for-profit colleges. Even if Democrats hold their majority in the Senate, it will almost certainly be by a tighter margin, making it more essential that Democrats find Republican support to pass legislation. A senior Republican Senate aide said that his party’s leaders on the panel -- Senators Michael B. Enzi (Wyo.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) -- would welcome the chance “to find truly bipartisan solutions” in the next Congress, regardless of who’s in the majority.
Harkin and his staff, the aide said, “don’t have a sense of how to work in a bipartisan manner” when it comes to their examination of for-profit colleges. But, in the next Congress, Republicans are hoping to become engaged in the debate by “really examining all of higher ed in a uniform way,” the aide said. “We want to talk about cost and quality and debt, but we want to do it in a more balanced, less witch-hunty way.”
As long as Democrats maintain their majority in the Senate, though, it’s likely the singular focus on for-profit colleges will continue. On numerous occasions since the HELP committee’s first hearing on the sector in June, Senator Harkin and Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) have both promised to forge ahead in their scrutiny. “I don’t know exactly what needs to be done,” Harkin said at the most recent hearing, held on Sept. 30, pledging another hearing in December and more to come should Democrats retain the majority. But, ultimately, he and Durbin share the goal of promulgating a bill next year  that will be aimed at reining in perceived misbehavior by for-profit colleges.
While current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hasn’t shown much interest in the for-profit higher education issue, his leadership of the party -- whether as the majority or minority -- could end today should his Republican challenger Sharron Angle, who has called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, win their close race. Were Reid to lose, Durbin and Senator Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) would fight it out to lead Senate Democrats.
Even if Durbin were to become majority leader and push a bill restricting federal funding of for-profit colleges through the Senate, it would hit roadblocks in a Republican-led House, a lobbyist for for-profit colleges was quick to stress in an interview. The House, more broadly, is the great red hope for the sector.
“Our preferred approach is to focus on transparency and disclosure while keeping options available to parents and students,” said a House Republican staffer. “We’re never going to support the government coming in and taking away options.” She declined to say whether that would amount to legislation that pushes back against the Department of Education’s proposed regulations on “gainful employment” or underfunding in the appropriations process of the department mechanisms needed to carry out the regulations.
Teddy Downey, an education analyst for Washington Research Group who is well-sourced on Capitol Hill, said that Kline will probably work with Boehner “to drive legislation favorable to the for-profit industry” that will “most likely focus on watering down, delaying, or blocking the Department of Education's gainful employment rules.”
The for-profit lobbyist also shared a theory that has been cycling around Washington for months, largely from the mouths of for-profit supporters: Education Secretary Arne Duncan would be willing to compromise on the department’s proposed regulations on “gainful employment” to ensure successful passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act before the end of President Obama’s first term.
But Hartle said it was too soon to reach any conclusions about what a new Congress would mean for the for-profits. “We need to wait a little while before the tea leaves settle at the bottom of the cup,” he said.