WASHINGTON -- As more details became clear Thursday about the effect a proposed Republican budget  would have on education programs, Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the Obama administration's higher education proposals against skeptical members of Congress.
At a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, Duncan summarized the administration’s plans for higher education , including a Race to the Top-like program for college affordability and completion and a major expansion of the Perkins Loan Program. While much of the discussion was about elementary and secondary education, many of the most pointed questions from members of Congress dealt with the administration’s proposed new spending on higher education.
Much of the administration's proposed $1.7 billion increase in the Education Department's discretionary budget for 2013 will go to higher education, including the Perkins loan expansion, the Race to the Top for College Affordability and Completion, and Obama’s proposed $8 billion in new mandatory spending for community colleges, Duncan said. What it won’t do, in many cases, is add new money to existing programs, including the TRIO and GEAR UP programs for college readiness and federal aid that helps minority-serving colleges. (NOTE: This paragraph has been updated to correct an error.)
There was a partisan divide in the reactions to the administration’s proposals: Republicans asked why any new spending was necessary, especially new mandatory spending such as the Perkins Loan expansion: “Is this important enough that we borrow from Red China to pay for it and give the bill to our grandkids?” asked Representative Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Democrats asked why the money would not be poured into programs already in place to help low-income students: “Why is the administration investing in new, untested programs instead of giving it to successful programs?” asked Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, Democrat of California, who said she was disappointed that TRIO programs were level-funded in the president’s budget proposal.
In response, Duncan defended the community college spending as necessary to help unemployed workers in the troubled economy. The new Race to the Top program, as well as a similar competition to encourage innovation, are needed to encourage colleges to keep prices down and states to spend more on higher education , he said.
“We at the federal level can’t do it by ourselves,” Duncan said. “We have to put some incentives out there to try to encourage them.”
One representative questioned whether the department’s approach would punish colleges for the actions state legislatures have taken. Many of the tuition increases at public colleges and universities have followed deep state budget cuts. Obama and department officials have said that the new programs would require states to maintain or increase higher education funding in order to be eligible. In Washington State, the cost per student at public colleges is less than it was 20 years ago, but tuition has increased because of state budget cuts, said Representative Norm Dicks, a Washington Democrat.
“They don’t have any choice,” Dicks said. “I think you’ve got to be very careful not to criticize the universities unfairly here for what the states are doing to them, especially the public universities.”
Duncan also warned of the consequences for the Education Department in Representative Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, put forward Tuesday. The budget would cut spending in 2013 beyond the levels agreed upon when Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling in August. It would also fund Pell Grants with discretionary, not mandatory, spending, meaning that Congress could vote to cut the program substantially in future years, and assumes that income-based repayment of student will be repealed, according to the Committee on Education Funding.
Over all, the budget could lead to an 18.5 percent cut in education spending by the end of 2014, including cuts that Duncan called "catastrophic."