The House's New Higher Ed Leader

January 14, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Given the state of the U.S. economy and the promises of Republican lawmakers to cut the deficit, much if not most of the Congressional activity surrounding higher education in the 112th Congress is likely to unfold in the House and Senate committees that set federal spending and overall budget and tax policies. But to the extent that the education committee in the House of Representatives weighs in on issues affecting colleges and universities, a face unfamiliar to many in higher education will have a large say.

The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Minnesota's John Kline, announced in December that he had asked Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, to head the Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness, which deals with postsecondary issues of all sorts, including financial aid, work force development, and the like.

Foxx, a House member since 2005, spent much of her pre-Congress career in higher education, starting as a secretary at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaching and administrating at Caldwell Community College and Appalachian State University, and ultimately serving several years as president of North Carolina's Maryland Community College. She also spent 10 years in the North Carolina Senate.

Photo: Appalachian State U.

Foxx meets with officials at Appalachian State U. in 2004.

The North Carolinian, who boasts of being "one of just 38 Republicans to score a 100 percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union," has left a relatively light imprint on higher education policy so far. In 2005, she proposed a successful amendment to block the federal government from establishing a student unit-record database, and she has been critical of the Education Department's efforts to crack down broadly on for-profit higher education. Beyond higher education, she has broken into the public spotlight primarily because of her outspoken nature -- occasionally getting herself into trouble, as when she suggested in 2009 that the story behind the 1998 hate-crime killing of Matthew Shepard was a hoax.

Foxx agreed to answer questions from Inside Higher Ed about her views and agenda for the new Congress. The exchange follows:

Q. You are one of the few members of Congress to have worked in higher education. How did that experience shape how you view higher education now that you're in Congress?

A. Both my work experience in higher education and my other life experiences have shaped my views. I spent many years working in administration and teaching in university and community college settings. Additionally, I served 12 years on a local school board, which also provided a unique outside perspective on higher education.

Together these experiences have helped convince me that government funding for higher education is most effective the closer the funding source is to the institutions. This is why I support focusing our efforts on state and local government and removing much of the federal red tape, mandates and funding mechanisms that hinder innovation and accountability.

Q. What do you perceive to be the biggest problems facing American higher education right now?

A. Though perhaps not unique to higher education, a major problem facing institutions of higher education is the delay in fully grasping the magnitude of the fiscal problems facing our country. Many sectors are grappling with this issue and higher education is by no means exempt.

America is facing a real turning point, where we are borrowing about four out of every 10 dollars we spend. We must come to terms with this reality and focus on avoiding the fate of nations like Greece and Ireland who borrowed and spent far beyond their means.

As we work through new standards of spending restraint, we will concentrate on accountability for every taxpayer dollar -- and that must include the dollars spent on higher education. We are in a different world than when the economy was booming, and everyone needs to adjust to that reality.

Q. You have on previous occasions questioned the wisdom and necessity of federal grants for college students. Can you expand on that view? Would you favor cutbacks in the federal Pell Grant Program, which has nearly doubled in size in the last three years?

A. Considering the fiscal crisis facing the federal government it would be entirely premature to take any program or department off the table when it comes to spending freezes or cuts. Higher education funding, including Pell Grants, must be carefully examined for areas of inefficiency and waste to ensure that taxpayers are getting a good return on their money. If potential savings are identified, Congress should be judicious in targeting those areas.

Q. More generally, you have said you don't believe there's an appropriate role for the federal government in higher education. How far do you think the current, fairly significant role can -- or should -- be rolled back?

A. The federal government’s involvement in higher education can and should be scaled back gradually in the coming years. Ideally we’d be able to reduce the burdensome federal bureaucracy and delegate much of the funding and policy decision making to state governments. This would help to foster better solutions to the specific issues confronting higher education and provide improved accountability for taxpayer dollars.

Q. The Education Department has proposed significant new regulation of for-profit colleges. Do you believe there are significant problems in the sector that warrant the department's aggressive approach?

A. There are certainly some bad actors in the world of for-profit colleges. These entities must be held accountable for their actions. At the same time I am concerned that the Department may be acting with overly broad brush strokes and disproportionately cracking down on the sector. I’m eager to see the data behind the Department’s regulatory actions and will be exploring whether these regulations are unnecessary or, alternatively, if they need to be expanded across higher education.

Q. Many college officials complain that they are over-regulated by the federal government. Do you agree, and do you envision attempts by the Republican-led House to deregulate?

A. There’s an old saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Over-regulation is a problem across the world of education. The federal government tends to over-regulate because of the power it wields with its funding stream. If we can move decision-making and funding to the state and local level we can bypass the problem of educators drowning in paperwork, compliance costs and red tape.

Q. Your Republican colleagues in the House are calling for repealing the health care law. You strongly opposed the overhaul of the student loan programs that was enacted in the same budget reconciliation legislation. Would you favor a similar repeal of SAFRA, to restore the Federal Family Education Loan Program, and do you foresee (and would you favor) an attempt to do that?

A. There will be many opportunities in the coming months to look closely at federal student loan programs. I expect to hold hearings to gain additional insight on how student loan programs are performing and if recent changes are proving to be effective or ineffective. At this point I don’t know that a repeal would be a top priority.

Q. What message would you send to higher education administrators and professors reading this?

A. American taxpayers are demanding more accountability and frugality in how their tax dollars are spent. This means any entity that receives tax dollars, including those in higher education, will be impacted as Congress grapples with the record-breaking federal deficits and tries to bring back a balanced budget.

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