The House's New Higher Ed Chief

Last week, Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) was named by the new chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, to replace McKeon as head of the panel's Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness, which is primarily responsible for dealing with higher education issues.

March 9, 2006

Last week, Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) was named by the new chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, to replace McKeon as head of the panel's Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness, which is primarily responsible for dealing with higher education issues. Keller is a relatively unknown commodity; college officials and lobbyists who've dealt with him describe him as a straight-shooting and accessible public official, but most say he has been outspoken or outfront on few issues -- except for those surrounding Pell Grants, on which Keller, himself a Pell Grant recipient in college, has been very active.

To offer some insight into a new and important player on the political scene for higher education, Inside Higher Ed asked Keller to answer some questions via e-mail. The exchange follows:

Q. You've been a leading advocate for increasing financial support for the Pell Grant Program. Why do you consider the program to be so important, and how have your own experiences as a Pell Grant recipient influenced your approach?

A. When I was growing up in Orlando, I lived in a one-bedroom home with my mother, grandmother, brother and sister. Five people, one bedroom. I worked as a busboy, a dishwasher and a short-order cook to save money for school. But even with my savings, student loans, and financial help from family and friends, I still didn't have enough money to go to college. Without the Pell Grant program, I don't know if I ever would have had the chance to go to college and get my law degree.

My education changed my life. I know how important a quality education is to all of our nation's young people and that's why I am so committed to expanding college access through important programs like Pell Grants.

Q. President Bush's fiscal 2007 budget would keep the maximum Pell at $4,050 for the fifth year in a row. Given how much you value the program, does it frustrate you that Congress has been unable to find a way to raise the Pell? Have you felt party-line pressure to cast votes that have kept the Pell maximum at its current level? Do you see legitimate prospects for using your position as subcommittee chairman to improve the situation? If so, how?

A. The number one thing keeping Pell Grants flat-lined is the dramatic increase in the number of high school graduates, which will ultimately peak in 2008. Since I was elected to Congress in 2000, the maximum Pell Grant award has increased from $3,300 to $4,050 today, and total funding has increased 74%, from $7.6 billion to $13.2 billion. I continue to support an increase in the maximum award. However, each $100 increase is estimated to cost $420 million, on top of the increases for the ever-growing number of students participating the program. In light of the 5.5 million students receiving Pell Grants, compared to only 3.9 million in 2000, it has been a challenge to even keep the award level. In fact, when Democrats were in control of Congress, the appropriated award actually decreased, from $2,400 in 1992 to $2,300 in 1993 and 1994.

As the new chairman of the 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over higher education, among other issues, I hope that we will continue our work in Congress towards strengthening the Pell Grant program.

Q. There is a move afoot (represented by the recently created Academic Competitiveness grants, and to some extent by a previous proposal you made for the State Scholars program) to make the receipt of federal financial aid contingent on academic merit in some fashion - in other words, to require students to fulfill academic requirements to get or keep their financial aid. That trend worries some supporters of low income students. Does it concern you at all?

A. I don't think that need-based and merit-based financial aid need to be mutually exclusive. For example, my Pell Grants Plus Act provides additional aid of up to $1,000 for needy, Pell-eligible students taking rigorous academic high school coursework through the State Scholars program. This program, which was included in the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill that we passed out of the Education and the Workforce Committee, rewards low-income, high-achieving students for their academic achievements.

Q, Do you envision Congress completing work on the Higher Education Act this year? Do you anticipate your subcommittee or the full House committee making any significant changes to the legislation as it passed the committee last summer?

A. Earlier this year, President Bush signed into law legislation to increase loan limits for students, provide new financial resources for disadvantaged students studying math and science, and make new loan funds available to graduate students. All the while, we were able to slash subsidies paid by the federal government to lenders, creating significant savings for the American taxpayer. I expect the House will renew remaining provisions of the Higher Education Act this year, including reforms to strengthen the Pell Grant program and add sunshine to college costs and accreditation so parents and students - the consumers of higher education - are given more information about their investment.

Q. Similarly, how do you see the prospects for the Workforce Investment Act?

A. I support the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) reauthorization bill that the House passed last year and I hope that the Senate passes this important legislation soon. Over the past five years, we have seen staggering job creation, and we must ensure that the strength of our job training system matches the strength of our economic engine. WIA has been a great success since Congress first passed it in 1998, and our efforts to streamline its programs and provide more flexibility for Americans seeking job training and retraining services will only make it stronger.

Q. Many college officials argue that their institutions are overly regulated. Do you think that's so? Are there ways in which colleges get too much government scrutiny? And are there areas in which they get too little oversight?

A. In 2002, I joined Buck McKeon in supporting the FED UP initiative, a project he championed to remove barriers to higher education by reducing red tape for colleges. We've continued the FED UP initiative's work in this Congress, including provisions to reduce red tape in both the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill and in the Deficit Reduction Act. Of course, some regulation, like the accreditation process, serves the important purpose of ensuring the high quality of America's higher education system. 

Q. What do you think are the biggest strengths of American higher education right now, and what are its biggest weaknesses?

A. One of the biggest weaknesses in American higher education today is the skyrocketing cost of college. It particularly hurts students from moderate income families who don't make enough to pay for college, but make too much to qualify for Pell Grants. Last year, the average total tuition and fees at four-year public colleges increased by 7.1 percent and at four-year private colleges tuition increased by 5.9 percent, both far outstripping the rate of inflation. At the same time, total student aid for undergraduate and graduate students increased to $129 billion, an increase of 8 percent. The rising cost of college is taxing students, parents, and the government alike. 

Despite its weaknesses, America has the greatest higher education system in the world. In recent years, institutions of higher education have adapted to their changing student populations by continuing to diversify the types of degrees they offer.  Non-traditional students are being embraced by colleges and universities and are helping to better prepare our workforce for the 21st century. The Higher Education Act reauthorization bill takes steps towards ensuring that institutions serving non-traditional students are treated similarly to traditional schools.

Q. As chairman, what do you see as your major priorities and goals regarding higher education and job training?

A. As chairman of the 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee, my number one priority is to strengthen and grow the Pell Grant program. Pell Grants are the passport out of poverty for millions of American students every year. Supporting the program has been my top goal since I was elected to Congress and that's why I am so happy to be the chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the program and all other higher education issues.

By increasing access to higher education we will help improve the American workforce in the 21st century. This effort goes hand-in-hand with our efforts to strengthen our job training system. Today's economy is more competitive than ever before. The economy of machine and muscle has quickly given way to the economy of the mind, and both our education and our workforce training systems must reflect this new reality. Our subcommittee has an important role to play in efforts to shape policy impacting America's ability to compete with nations around the world, and I am eager to get started.

Q. Any words of wisdom (or warning) that you'd like people who work in higher education to think about?

A. It would have been easy for me to give up on my dream to go to college when I found out how much money my education would cost. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about going to college or struggling to make ends meet while in school to never give up. Getting a college education will be the best investment you ever make. It changed my life and it will change yours.


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