I wish I could claim otherwise, but the fact is that issues affecting higher education have been mostly ignored, or treated as a sideshow in this year’s presidential campaign, and in almost all other federal races.
There are many reasons for this, principal of which are the overriding nature of questions on how best to deal with terror in general and the situation in Iraq in particular. Then there is the troubled state of the overall economy and how government can and should act on job creation, health care costs and energy prices.
Finally, there is a tendency of both political parties to use – or twist – statistics in order to advance their own political purposes, but at the expense, literally, of dealing with the issues at hand.
Take Pell Grants, for instance. Senator John Kerry accuses President George W. Bush of “cutting” Pell Grants. President Bush responds by claiming that Pell Grant funding has increased to record levels during his administration. Senator Kerry says that is because so many more people are “eligible” for Pell Grants.
A generous view of the above exchange would be to say that both candidates are correct in their claims. Senator Kerry is presumably referring to the fact that President Bush, as a candidate in 2000, did talk about raising the maximum Pell Grant to $5100, as opposed to the current level of $4050. President Bush, when acknowledging the “record” level of increased spending on Pell Grants, is referring not to the money made available to individuals, but rather to the collective amount of money made available to college students overall. And Senator Kerry is making the point that more people “eligible” means more students and families dropping into the “needy” category, and therefore drawing upon the Pell Grant as a college funding source.
A more pessimistic view of the parry would be to say that both candidates are stretching the truth to put the best face on their claims. Senator Kerry knows that the Congress authorizes and appropriates money to spend, not the President, so the claim of a “cut” in Pell Grants is not really the case on many levels. In fact, Congress has authorized higher levels for Pell Grants, but appropriators have chosen not to make the funds available. President Bush also knows that the reason Pell Grant increases are “record” is not because of any particular White House action, but because more students are applying for, and receiving, this foundational form of student aid. And Senator Kerry knows that more students from underserved communities are applying to, and deciding to attend, college, so naturally there is greater demand for Pell Grants.
While Senator Kerry has made references to the rising cost of college during the Bush Administration, implying that the President is to blame, the fact is that there are a number of factors which have combined in recent years to make the “sticker price” of college higher than ever.
First, there is a simple supply and demand issue: more students desire to attend college, and there are a relatively fixed number of seats on campus. This situation leads to higher prices. Then, at least for public universities, there has been, in many states, a decrease in state subsidies for higher education, leading inevitably to “user fee increases,” meaning, of course, higher tuition costs for families. Private schools have experienced plateaus, or shrinkages, in their endowment funds, causing budget pressures which lead to tuition increases.
And, it is important to remember that when Republicans in Congress floated legislation last year to put a lid on college costs, it was the Democrats on Capitol Hill who screamed the loudest that “price controls” would never work. Unfortunately, the debate over the legislation degenerated into a pointing match over whether the proposed legislation was calling for “price controls.” Since the shouting never really subsided, the bill never advanced far enough to allow for continued debate on ways to hold colleges accountable for cost increases, or on ways to better educate families on financial aid options that are available to meet the high cost of college.
There is hope over the horizon, however. Whatever happens in next month’s elections, most observers close to higher education issues believe that the new Congress and newly elected President, whether it is challenger Kerry or incumbent Bush, will deal with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act very early in the new calendar year, thereby putting at least some new policies in place for the 2005-2006 Academic Year. And we, of course, will continue to strengthen our impact on the way these issues are handled, especially as more and more current and future college parents become involved with our organization.
Thank you for your continued support of College Parents of America; I encourage you to vote and I welcome your thoughts and comments, pre- or post-election.