Possibly the topic of greatest concern to University students during the upcoming election is national policy affecting higher education — a topic rarely covered by candidates.
Major candidates for the state’s U.S. Senate seat have varying opinions on higher education, from little or no government involvement to policies advocating significant change.
Candidates agree that while the quality of education in Minnesota is something to be proud of, access to colleges and universities is thwarted by increasing tuition costs.
While most candidates agree that the federal government should keep financing within reach, they vary on how much help should be offered to needy students.
DFLer Mark Dayton, a U.S. Senate candidate, supports a higher education system that is accountable to taxpayers, yet maintains autonomy from the government in determining educational programs.
“We have some great people (in Minnesota) who are in charge of our post-secondary institutions, and (Dayton) respects them enormously,” said Lani Kawamura, Dayton’s director of policy and research.
Independence Party Senate candidate Jim Gibson agrees with Dayton’s perspective.
“I think the higher education part of our education system is probably the envy of the world right now,” Gibson said.
However, he said that besides the financing of student grants and loans, the federal government should play a minimal role in higher education.
Gibson, a computer software developer, said he would promote legislative funding to initiate developments in educational software.
“I just think (computer technology) is going to transform the education system,” he said. “It is going to dramatically improve performance of students and the efficiency of the whole education process.”
Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Rod Grams said the federal government should not have as much control in local education policies.
“Federal government involvement in higher education has been marked by burdensome regulatory requirements,” Grams wrote in a letter to The Minnesota Daily.
He said he believes government intervention in higher education should be limited to financial assistance. He advises educators, however, to not forget the basics of traditional, core subjects.
“If America is to preserve its status as a world leader in higher education,” Grams wrote, “we must emphasize academic subjects that equip students with the tools to be independent, critical thinkers.”
Whether a student has access to college is often determined by the availability of financial aid.
To emphasize his support for an involved federal government in financing higher education, Grams cites legislative policies he helped pass: the creation of the Hope Scholarship tax credit; a $2,000 increase in tax-free Education Savings Accounts; and a bill to increase Pell Grants awards to $4,800.
“The costs and demand for providing cutting-edge technology education opportunities in our colleges and universities have undoubtedly raised the costs of higher education,” Grams wrote.
“I support continuing to channel tuition assistance directly to students and families through tax credits and means-tested assistance,” he added.
Tuition costs, which are increasing at a rate greater than the cost of living, are a concern of Dayton’s, Kawamura said.
“(Rising costs) hits hardest on middle class families,” she said. “(Dayton) is very much aware of that.”
To help cover the high educational costs, Kawamura said Dayton has proposed two programs.
The first would make college tuition fully tax deductible for students or families whose total yearly income is below $90,000. After grants and scholarships, up to $30,000 would be deductible.
The program would start to phase out for families making $90,000, and be totally phased out for those making $120,000 or more.
Dayton’s second proposal is a full loan forgiveness program for college graduates who perform two to four years of community service or teaching.
Gibson, on the other hand, said he is concerned that money given to increase financial aid packages for higher education depletes funds that could be applied toward the Social Security fund or to help deplete the national debt.
“If I propose expansions in the one program and they’re simply paid for money that wasn’t used to pay for these larger debts, I haven’t necessarily done many favors,” he explained.
Of more concern to Gibson was keeping the cost of higher education in line with the overall cost of living. Gibson said he has heard of college and university administrations who increase tuition to compensate for a higher cost of living payment to staff.
As a U.S. Senator, Gibson said, he would be “somewhat committed” to increasing the available grant and loan funds proportionately to the rise in cost of living.
All three candidates agree that too few minority students attend colleges and universities in Minnesota.
Grams’ answer to offering better post-secondary education opportunities to students of color lies in their preparatory schooling.
“The best way to promote higher education among students of color is to ensure they get a quality education in elementary and secondary schools,” Grams wrote.
He added that he has supported legislation allowing children to transfer out of inadequate schools to “enable students to realize their full academic potential.”
Kawamura said Dayton is “very supportive” of affirmative action programs that allow students of color admission into higher education.
“He believes that all students, regardless of color or their income bracket, must have the opportunity to have access to college or post secondary education,” Kawamura said.
Gibson, however, is against affirmative action for college admissions. Applying such a plan, he said, covers up the underlying problem of under-educated students in primary and secondary education.
“If that, in the end, allows us to not have to deal with the problems in the schools, then we have a real problem,” Gibson said. “That is, why aren’t the (educators) doing their job through high school?”
Student health care
Students who are dropped from their parents’ health care once they enter college is an issue of concern for Gibson.
“I don’t know what the solution is there, but that’s a definite problem that has to be dealt with,” Gibson said.
Health care, Kawamura said, is the centerpiece of Dayton’s campaign, promising an “American-style health care plan that would provide health insurance for everyone.”
Dayton’s proposal is to make health care a shared responsibility in Minnesota between employers and the state government. Funding for state programs would come from the budget surplus, Kawamura said.
While Grams said that most students are covered by their parents’ or colleges’ health insurance programs, he supports tax credits for students without insurance to purchase coverage.
“Reducing the number of uninsured Americans and ensuring reliable access to health care services is one of my top priorities,” Grams wrote.
Tess Langfus welcomes comments at [email protected]