For-profit education and higher-ed funding are likely to feel the impact of the presidential election.

As the nation edges closer to final results from the Nov. 6 presidential election, many higher-education stakeholders are outlining how each candidate’s victory might affect funding and policy for colleges and universities.

During a Nov. 2 webinar featuring a handful of college and university experts, panelists agreed that both candidates want college to be more affordable. But while President Obama wants to increase federal funding for Pell Grants and other higher-education programs as part of his strategy, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has said he would not funnel additional government aid to schools. Instead, he wants colleges to seek more competitive and innovative ways to deliver that affordability.

Kris Amundson, director of strategic communications at Education Sector; Trish Brennan-Gac, senior policy advisor and consultant with Learning Point Associates; and Sally Stroup, vice president and legal counsel at the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, addressed some key policy issues and also pinpointed a few areas that are of particular concern to the higher-education community.

College affordability

An Obama administration likely would propose more across-the-board funding than a Romney administration, Stroup said.

“I think one place where you will see some disagreement is in who is the provider of student loans,” Amundson said. “Obama took a good deal of that away from the banks, and that’s where [his administration] got the money they used to increase the total they were giving away in Pell Grants. Romney reps have said that’s something he would rescind and bring banks back into it.”

Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice presidential running mate, proposed a budget that would do more in terms of freezing the maximum Pell Grant level, she added. Ryan’s House budget plan would keep the top Pell Grant award in the coming school year at $5,500 but in future years would reduce the number of students eligible, not the award sums. In other words, fewer students would receive Pell Grants, but the neediest would not see their awards changed.

“Education funding only changes so much,” said Brennan-Gac. “The question is, if you’ve got these finite resources and little wiggle room, how do you make them work more efficiently for you? It’s not so much the number for Pell—think about how we make the dollars go further.”

If Obama wins re-election, Brennan-Gac said rumors have swirled about a Race to the Top program for higher education. Those rumors have raised debate about what such a program might look like and how much of an impact it might really have; some K-12 schools and districts have turned down Race to the Top dollars because of the rules and regulations attached to the program.

For-profit colleges

In his first term, Obama has focused on regulating for-profit schools, which have seen much higher student loan default rates, on average, than nonprofit institutions. Panelists debated whether all schools should be held to the same standards as for-profit colleges.

“I think so,” Amundson said, “particularly because we’re looking at things like greater transparency. What are the odds, if you enroll in Institution X, that you will emerge six years later with a degree? That’s information parents and students really deserve to have—reporting some degree of how successful students are.”

“Part of it is making sure that students are going somewhere where there are results for them,” Brennan-Gac said. “The finding of jobs is part on the institution as well as on the individual.”

Stroup said if forced to guess about legislative action toward for-profit colleges, Romney might be more inclined “to treat everyone the same. Whether or not the landscape changes, I think it will apply to everybody, unlike the current administration, which has applied [its heaviest regulation] mostly to for-profits.”

A Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization might change the status quo as well.

“I think it will be very interesting to see what happens when we get to a reauthorization next year,” Amundson said. “Whatever the administration wants is going to be very much affected by what they think they can get through Congress.”

Some debate exists over whether HEA will move first, or whether Congress first will turn to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“If HEA moves, there’s clearly going to be a regulatory revamping of things, potentially,” Brennan-Gac said. “If ESEA moves, I think it won’t be as dramatic.”

Community colleges

Obama has focused largely on business and community partnerships, and on community colleges as retraining centers for the jobs of the future—and some wonder if a Romney victory will put the same emphasis on community colleges.

“I don’t know that they’re going to be as active as the Obama administration,” Brennan-Gac said, adding that she is merely speculating at this point. “They might be more hands-off, and so I think it would put the onus more on community colleges.”

“I think they’ll do fine,” Stroup said. “Republicans don’t like creating new programs—they like working with what we already have. I don’t think they’ll do anything bad.”

The panelists also debated what changes can be made quickly to better support community colleges.

“It goes back to where the biggest costs are, how they can serve a larger pool of students, and making sure they’re using resources,” Brennan-Gac said. “It could be a needs assessment—look at priorities, and focus on that.”

Ensuring that students complete a community college degree is important, too.

“I think persistence and completion are things we all need to be paying attention to and striving to improve,” Stroup said. “Make sure students are coming out of community colleges.”

Amundson pointed to remedial education, which is “provided in huge quantities” at the community college level.

“That is simply something we have to address—that’s both a K-12 and a higher-education issue.” She noted that some institutions are creating a type of parallel institution to educate students who need remedial help and will not even enroll students until they are back up to speed.

Competitiveness

Student competitiveness remains an important issue, and Brennan-Gac said having faculty with real-world experience can help connect students to what is happening with the job market.

Stroup noted that “trying to design programs in cooperation with the local workforce [is] what’s driving job creation.”

Amundson said there are some successful programs around the country that might serve as models to help repair that disconnect, including programs that look at ways to improve K-12 education, how to prepare students not just for a four-year degree but for all forms of post-high school education, and how to link education to the needs of a labor force.

“One thing really important in terms of helping students persist—it’s not just getting them to college, it’s getting them through,” Amundson said. She noted that many historically black colleges and universities do an excellent job of providing not only academic support to new students, but also social support to help students feel comfortable.

Open education

Massive open online courses, commonly known as MOOCs, also tie into student competitiveness. Some wonder if courses that are more tailored to a student’s field, along with certifications and specific skill validations, might render a traditional university degree unnecessary.

Stroup said the emergence of MOOCs “could be a great thing for people across the country, how we use these, and how employers will use these.”

Student populations are becoming more nontraditional, and while college degrees and that “credentialing function” is not going away, a barrier to using MOOCs more widely is that there is not yet a way for an employer to certify that a person has actually learned something, Amundson said.

“One of the things we’re going to be seeing is a shift from measuring simply seat time to measuring [if a student] can demonstrate what they know and are able to do,” Amundson said. “But right now, the college degree serves a really critical credentialing function.”