Obama on Higher Ed

President-elect has called for reform of loan programs, a tuition tax credit in exchange for service, new investments in research, and a broader concept of affirmative action.
November 5, 2008

Many higher education leaders had hoped to see college issues, or education generally, emerge as a major issue in the 2008 race. That never quite happened. And with the war in Iraq and the collapse of the economy, that may not be surprising. But over the course of two years leading up to his election, Sen. Barack Obama has given many policy addresses and issued many proposals about education that may guide his work in office -- at least after he deals with the economy, Iraq and Afghanistan. Here are some of the highlights:

Loan programs: Obama responded to a scandal last spring about student loan programs by proposing a series of reforms. In a May 2007 proposal, he called for eliminating subsidies to lenders and pushing all borrowing into the direct lending program. He said that eliminating subsidies would allow for a significant boost in support for Pell Grants. At around the same time Obama made his proposal, similar ideas were unveiled by Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who were at that time emerging as top competitors in the race for the Democratic nomination. In part because all of the leading candidates were more sympathetic to direct lending than to the guaranteed loan program, and the Republicans at the time were largely ignoring higher education issues, there was little sustained debate about these proposals.

Access to higher education: While Obama started with a focus on loan programs, he went on to issue more detailed proposals on college access, saying repeatedly that he worried about the challenges families faced paying for college. Included in his college access plans:

  • A fully refundable tax credit to cover the first $4,000 in college costs -- enough for two years of community college tuition in most cases -- for everyone. The only requirement would be 100 hours of public service a year; this could be performed in the summer or between semesters.
  • Simplification of federal aid applications. (There has been some progress on this issue, which attracts bipartisan support, since Obama spoke on it and prior to the election.)
  • A pledge to keep Pell Grant maximums rising at the level of inflation or higher if possible.

Community colleges: Obama has proposed a new grant program that would provide funds to community colleges to conduct more thorough analysis of the types of skills and technical education that are in high demand from students and local businesses; to create new associate of arts degree programs that cater to emerging careers; and to reward institutions that graduate more students and also increase their numbers of transfer students to four-year institutions.

Science and technology: During the campaign, the president-elect repeatedly linked investments in science and technology to improvements in the economy, and he made a number of specific proposals. Obama has called for expanded financing of federal research programs, with special efforts for those academic scientists starting their careers; the creation of new programs to improve math and science education and to attract more students to them -- with special efforts to recruit minority and female students to fields where they have been underrepresented; and special efforts to promote research and education related to climate change and health care. Obama has backed stem cell research and opposed Bush administration limits on such funds. Further, he has pledged to "restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees." A more philosophical outline of Obama's views on the link between education, science and economic competitiveness may be found in his speech in June at Kettering University.

Affirmative action: Obama has repeatedly said that affirmative action should not be eliminated, but he has suggested a combination of class and race as factors. In a 2007 interview with ABC, asked if his daughters will deserve affirmative action when they apply to college, he said that they “should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.” Further, in Obama's Philadelphia speech on race, he noted with sympathy the frustrations of some while people "when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed." But in that speech, as in others, Obama has also repeatedly stressed that the economic and educational gaps between some minority individuals and others are real and need attention.

While presidential candidates prepare policies on issues such as education and research, they also end up speaking on other higher education issues when they are asked surprise questions on the campaign trail or in debates, or when they happen to be campaigning in an area that is focused on a particular issue. In these situations, Obama has:


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