To date, John McCain's higher education policy has been short on specifics. That's not to say his rival, Barack Obama, delved heavily into the finer points of student aid or research funding before his party held its convention last week in Denver. Nevertheless, the Democratic nominee's public statements on college affordability and other topics, combined with somewhat more detailed policy prescriptions already available on his Web site, made for few surprises last week when delegates ultimately adopted the party platform committee's official report.
On Monday, during a subdued schedule altered at the last minute to accommodate Republican Party leaders' concerns about the impact of Hurricane Gustav in the Gulf Coast, delegates convened to complete the Republican National Convention's "specific official business" -- including, as a matter of procedure, approving the party platform.
That document, which outlines the Republican Party's official stances on policies ranging from immigration to the environment, also contains the most detailed look so far at how the presumptive nominee John McCain would approach higher education as president.
The candidate's existing positions call for more innovation, more transparency and fewer regulatory barriers in higher education, casting colleges and universities as necessary to maintain America's competitive advantage in the world. Many of McCain's proposals are about simplification, although they don't go into much detail: simplifying (and consolidating) financial aid programs, simplifying college tax benefits, simplifying student lending, reducing earmarks that could take away from peer-reviewed federal research funding.
The platform, like all party documents, doesn't necessarily commit McCain to support individual policies, and its intended audience is more likely to be constituencies within the Republican Party than undecided voters or policy makers. It is essentially identical to a draft circulated late last month, which the chairmen of the platform committee, referring to a process that invited citizens to upload videos with suggestions for revising the document, called "the most grassroots-driven platform development effort in the history of American politics."
It provides a glimpse into potential future Republican approaches to issues largely overlooked so far in the presidential campaign: the role of community colleges; whether institutions should use more of their endowments to boost financial aid; an acknowledgment that low graduation rates threaten American dominance in higher education; a call to revamp the financial aid system; opposition to how Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is applied in college athletics; and a nod to supporters of distance education (details below).
On other federal issues -- like affirmative action and quotas (against) and the Solomon Amendment and ROTC (for) -- the platform maintains longstanding positions supported by both the party and McCain.
Some political observers speculated that McCain might rewrite portions of the party's official platform to reflect positions in which he has historically defied the Republican mainstream, such as support for research on embryonic stem cells and a willingness to support efforts to combat global warming. As far as higher education is concerned, however, conservatives have little to worry about: On the former issue, for example, the party marshals recent scientific advances to declare its support for "stem-cell research" -- "with adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells -- without the destruction of embryonic human life." The platform also opposes human cloning and "the creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes."
In many ways, the content of the platform closely tracks the Bush administration's approach to higher education under Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. The document, for instance, asserts that "[w]hile federal student loans and grants have opened doors to learning for untold numbers of low and middle-income students, the overall financial aid system, with its daunting forms and confused rationales, is nothing less than Byzantine. It must be simplified. We call for a presidential commission to undertake that task and to review the role of government regulations and policies in the tuition spiral. We affirm our support for the public-private partnership that now offers students and their families a vibrant marketplace in selecting their student loan provider."
Such a commission may sound familiar: The Bush administration, under Spellings, created the Commission on the Future of Higher Education to address just such problems, among others. Spellings herself, when she first endorsed the commission's findings in 2006, even used the word "Byzantine" to describe the federal financial aid system. In contrast to Republicans' focus on the system as a whole, including myriad (and they would argue, sometimes redundant) federal programs, Democrats in their platform concentrate on the process. Families will be able to apply for aid "simply by checking a box on their tax form," according to the document approved last week.
In some cases, regarding complex, entrenched problems that neither political party has solved, the Republican platform does the rhetorical equivalent of throwing up its hands. The section titled "Meeting College Costs" begins: "Students and their parents face formidable challenges in planning for college as costs continue to outpace inflation. Higher education seems immune from market controls and the law of supply and demand."
But tucked away in the next sentence is an implied endorsement of Congress's pressure on colleges to spend more of their endowments to boost financial aid: "We commend those institutions which are directing a greater proportion of their endowment revenues toward tuition relief." That cause's most outspoken leader has been Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. The party platform stops short, however, of recommending direct legislative action.
When it comes to affordability, the Republican approach generally favors incentives to encourage savings, such as Section 529 accounts, and streamlining existing programs in contrast with Democrats' calls for bigger Pell grants and new tax credits (the party's 2008 platform and Obama's campaign endorse a $4,000 American Opportunity Tax Credit in exchange for community service). The Republican platform doesn't mention Pell grants at all.
It also decries the overall graduation rate at colleges nationwide: "Maintaining America’s preeminence requires a world-class system of education, with high standards, in which all students can reach their potential. That requires considerable improvement over our current 70 percent high school graduation rate and six-year graduation rate of only 57 percent for colleges."
The platform further addresses other aspects of higher education policy:
- It rejects the idea that "states should be allowed to flout the federal law barring them from giving in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens," an issue that has fueled heated debate in some parts of the country and yielded legal rulings that are at times conflicting.
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, says the document, "should not be distorted by Washington bureaucrats to micromanage collegiate athletics or force cancellation of men's sports programs."
- Proponents of distance education, who have had supporters within the Spellings Department of Education, receive direct treatment in the platform, which opposes legal differentiation between online and on-campus learning: "As mobility increases in all aspects of American life, student mobility, from school to school and from campus to campus, will require new approaches to admissions, evaluations, and credentialing. Distance learning propelled by an expanding telecommunications sector and especially broadband, is certain to grow in importance -- whether through public or private institutions -- and federal law should not discriminate against the latter."
- The platform backs an approach to unemployment insurance that anticipates worker dislocations, which it says must also be alleviated by "strengthening community colleges and making them more accessible through Flexible Training Accounts."
- For veterans, the platform encourages "private colleges to bridge the gap between GI Bill education benefits and tuition costs. We will strongly enforce the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act so that returning veterans can promptly return to their former jobs." The most recent expansion of educational benefits for returning veterans was backed earlier this year by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). McCain voted against that version in favor of a competing (and less costly) bill.
- On free expression and alleged ideological bias, the platform is unequivocal: "Free speech on college campuses is to be celebrated, but there should be no place in academia for anti-Semitism or racism of any kind. We affirm the right of students and faculty to express their views in the face of the leftist dogmatism that dominates many institutions. To preserve the integrity and independence of the nation's colleges, we will continue to ensure alternatives to ideological accrediting systems."
Inside Higher Ed will bring more coverage from St. Paul tomorrow, including a look at what happened outside the Xcel Energy Center Monday. But there's no need to wait for the digital paper boy in the morning: Tune in to IHE's live stream of updates and observations by following along on Twitter all day.