Obama to face tough task on higher ed. issues

With a promise of change, Barack Obama will be sworn in tomorrow as the 44th president of the United States . While the momentous inauguration of the first black president is expected to draw more than 2 million people to Washington, Obama is entering the White House during a tumultuous time for America, specifically for higher education. Before the election, the Obama campaign held several conference calls with college reporters, talking about the need for increased access to, focus on and affordability of higher education in the United States. Still, the hope for Obama to help lower college tuition outright is not as viable a solution as for Obama to find more ways to aid higher education institutions and their students alike. A recent survey of 200 people in 14 states by The New York Times showed decreasing college tuition as a top concern âÄî especially with higher education budget cuts around the country. Earlier this month, University of Minnesota officials were faced with deep cuts in state funding over the next two years as the state government works to balance a $5 billion deficit . Funding for public colleges and universities comes from a stateâÄôs budget, while federal government aid comes from research funding and financial aid, like Pell Grants . Although Obama intends to propose more money for Pell Grants to Congress, one proposed policy shows a new mentality in the White House. The American Opportunity Tax Credit , if passed by Congress, would give students $4,000 toward college in exchange for 100 hours of community service. That would pay for nearly 40 percent of the current tuition at the University. Robert Poch , a University professor and former director of Minnesota Higher Education, said he believes community service will be a theme with the new administration. âÄúThis theme of community service is a positive,âÄù Poch said. âÄúIn return for some investment in community, they will provide this monetary opportunity that will increase access to post-secondary education.âÄù Poch said ObamaâÄôs plan to eliminate the form for Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a âÄúlarge step forward.âÄù The new system will require checking a box on your tax forms , thus eliminating the âÄúconfusionâÄù and âÄúfrustrationâÄù that stops many people from completing the forms and receiving federal aid. Poch also cited ObamaâÄôs proposal to make research funds more readily available to young researchers, as well as possibly lifting current limits on stem cell research, as great benefits to a research institution like the University. Poch said the infusion of more research money to the University would allow money currently going toward research to be reallocated toward other needs. While these measures are a good start, assistant professor of educational policy and administration David Weerts said he believes other issues tend to overshadow higher education in terms of importance. âÄúThe country is bankrupt,âÄù Weerts said. âÄúHigher education is often one of the last items to be taken care of.âÄù Weerts cites the recent example of the National Governors AssociationâÄôs letter asking the secretary of education to waive a federal requirement that states must maintain their spending on higher education amid deteriorating budget conditions across the nation as an example of that mentality. Weerts said while funding for public institutions being delegated to state governments could mean less money than if funded by the federal government, it also means less regulation, such as standardized testing for college students. Poch said he believes history has shown that in times of crisis, the importance of higher education funding has been shown consistently, such as after World War II with the G.I. Bill . Even though he expects any new policies to be closely examined by Congress, Poch said he is sure they will recognize how putting money into higher education is important to stimulate the economy. Larry Isaak, president of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact agrees, saying that in bad economic times more people go back to school to get better skills to land better jobs. While Obama may not be able to directly fund state schools or lower tuition, Isaak said one important measure Obama can take is to set a goal for the nation. Isaak pointed to John F. Kennedy, who set a goal in 1961 for Americans to land on the moon, which was achieved by 1969. Isaak said if Obama set a goal for increased support in secondary education funding, it would send a âÄúpowerful messageâÄù as to how important the issue is. Currently, as talk of an economic stimulus package continues, the University has taken its own measures to make sure its voice is heard. University President Bob Bruininks sent Congress two formal letters informing them of current infrastructure needs that are solely waiting funding should the economic stimulus package include a higher education component. As Obama takes office with a platform of promises, and with no answer as to where higher education ranks in his plans, University students will likely have to wait and see.