What the election results mean for higher education

President Obama’s reelection has important implications for higher education.

President Obama’s focuses on making college more affordable and accessible to students, improving college completion rates, and improving academic quality and value are expected to continue in the next four years, according to a new report that examines how the 2012 election results will affect higher education.

Particularly focused on fiscal and policy implications, “Higher Education and the 2012 Elections,” from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), breaks down federal and state election results, and highlights projected changes.

Since 2008, the Obama administration has focused regulatory efforts on increasing the number of secondary degree holders and returning the United States to first-in-world status regarding the number of individuals who hold a postsecondary degree.

“Generally, [the outlook] is positive, and we’ve been pleased with the president’s support of higher ed overall,” said Dan Hurley, director of State Relations and Policy Analysis at AASCU, and lead author of the report.

The Obama Administration has previously sought to address problems with fraudulent activity in federal student aid programs and for-profit colleges, among other things. AASCU researchers said they expect that the U.S. Department of Education will continue to focus on these agendas in the next term.

Similarly, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has, in the past, focused a series of hearings pertaining to for-profit sector fraud. Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is expected to continue these hearings with the help of newly-elected ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is set to replace Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. who is leaving the position due to Republican Caucus term-limit Senate rules.

“The No. 1 factoid that I’ve been throwing out is the fact that come January 2013, more than half of all state legislators in this country will have been in office for two years or less, and that is a fascinating statistic with significant implications,” said Hurley. “The institutional memory of state legislators is low. For higher ed and every other interest group, they’re going to have to redouble their efforts to convey their perspective.”

Hurley also cited his concerns about the potentially detrimental polarization within the legislature.

“As we’ve been hearing for a couple of years about increased polarization at the national level, so too might be the case in state political circles,” said Hurley. “Republicans gained 113 legislative seats in the South while Democrats gained 117 seats in the East, so [polarization is] happening at the state level and regionally.”

In the past four years, the Obama administration had pushed forward regulation proposals and provisions regarding the for-profit sector’s practices. Most of the provisions referenced taxpayer and student protections, though multiple “gainful employment” rules were proposed that required for-profit institutions to offer more transparency and data regarding their program’s ability to prepare students to succeed in the job market. Many of these regulation provisions, however, were struck down by a federal court.

“I think [the Obama administration will] probably try to amend those and reapply those,” said Hurley.

AASCU projects that the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will focus heavily on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) that is set to expire at the end of 2013. This represents a slight shift in agenda for the committee, which previously focused mostly on college access and affordability in the 112th Congress.

“As Congress begins to work on [reauthorizing the HEA], its efforts will include a comprehensive review of student financial aid programs, assuring quality in higher education, and boosting measures of student success,” the report said. “Given the focus on college affordability, one key aspect of this debate for public institutions will be on strengthening the current ‘maintenance of effort’ provisions contained in the HEA.”

The AASCU report points out that many higher education issues are hugely dependent on the outcome of the fiscal cliff debates. Proposed changes to both tax policy and appropriations will remain in limbo until a decision is reached. Similarly, the Pell Grant program is expected to face an estimated $5 billion funding shortfall.

“The Pell Grant is exempt from across-the-board cuts, but how the fiscal cliff is addressed will have an impact on the mid-range or long-term sustainability of the Pell Grant program,” said Hurley.

“In fiscal year 2015 and beyond the shortfall is projected to increase significantly,” the report said. “Given the atmosphere in Washington, it will be difficult to secure funds to overcome the shortfall. Discussions of program reform have begun and calls for implementing cost-reducing policy reforms in the program will grow louder in the months ahead.”

The reports clarifies that the recently extended 3.4 percent interest rate on subsidized student loans through mid-2013 will come to a head next June, when the rate will revert back to the 6.8 percent rate paid by borrowers receiving unsubsidized loans.

“I think how [the fiscal cliff] is addressed will set a very strong tone as the 113th session of Congress begins its work,” said Hurley. “There could be some good feelings of bipartisan accomplishment or even more sour feelings [depending on its result].”

The report mentions several noteworthy state elections results, including Oklahoma’s decision to wipe out all affirmative action programs in state government hiring, education, and contracting practices; and California’s Proposition 30, in which residents opted to raise their own taxes to fund education.

AASCU officials project a heavier focus on immigration reform in the coming years. Some headway was made regarding the DREAM Act on Maryland’s state ballot. The approval of Maryland’s Question 4 allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, provided they attended a state high school for three years and can prove that they filed state tax returns during that time.

“At the state level, when you look at the ballot measures, the electorate were generally pretty kind to higher ed,” said Hurley.

Efforts to improve educational access to veterans and military students will also be prioritized, the report said.

“Regarding veterans’ education there’s some appropriate concern on behalf of the administration on the expenditures and utilization of the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” said Hurley. “We want to get those dollars into the hands of the soldiers that deserve them and make sure that they’re treated appropriately.”

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