Democrats confront higher ed financing

Amy Horst

As college costs escalate nationwide, President George W. Bush and the Democratic presidential candidates are mapping plans to solve the problems universities face.

For students struggling to cover tuition and living costs, November’s elections could determine how they pay in the future.

Bush set the tone with his State of the Union address Tuesday, touching briefly on issues facing students. The Chronicle of Higher Education also released a study this week detailing the Democratic presidential candidates’ higher education plans.

In his State of the Union address, Bush proposed larger Pell Grants for students who took advanced classes in high school. He also recommended funding programs that would increase cooperation between community colleges and businesses.

Most of the Democratic candidates said their main goals are helping students pay for college and increasing the percentage of students who graduate in a timely manner.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark said his plan would pay students $6,000 for each of their first two years of college. His proposal would apply to students whose families make less than $100,000 per year.

Clark and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., both suggested plans to provide federal aid for higher education in states where budget deficits have caused large tuition increases.

Minnesota would fit into that category, said Bill Buck, national press secretary for Clark.

In the past year, tuition at public colleges has risen by an average of 14 percent. At the University, tuition increased 10 percent during the last year and 43 percent since 1999.

Students who agree to go to college or vocational school by eighth grade could get $10,000 per year in federal and state grants, under a plan by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Kerry’s plan, Service for College, would pay for four years of college if students do two years of community service while in college.

“It’s an innovative plan that’s intended to make college more affordable and also help young people connect to their communities and give something back,” said George Twigg, director of Kerry’s Wisconsin campaign.

A plan proposed by Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., would also encourage public college students to do community service. The program would give one year of free tuition to those who take college-preparatory classes during high school and spend 10 hours per week performing community service or work-study jobs once they get to college.

Despite the candidates’ focus on higher education policy, political science professor Scott Abernathy said politicians are often removed from the experiences of college students.

“I wonder if they understand the dire financial situation that a lot of public colleges are in,” Abernathy said.

He also said states, not the federal government, hold final sway over what happens to universities.

“The Democratic candidates have a better understanding of what colleges need, but they don’t seem to understand enough of state politics,” he said.

Likewise, Clara Lovett, president of the American Association of Higher Education, said the federal government’s higher education role is limited.

“It’s not a major federal responsibility, except for the area of guaranteed student loans,” she said. “In other areas, it’s really the states, not the federal government, that are the major players.”

The Democratic candidates said the rising cost of tuition and fees is troubling, but all oppose a bill that would penalize universities for substantial tuition increases.

Phil Lewenstein, director of communications and legislative services for the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office in St. Paul, said he is encouraged by the politicians’ concern for higher education. But he said people should also be cautious about political promises.

“It’s important to recognize that (the candidates’ plans) are being put forth in a political context,” Lewenstein said. “Certainly some of them could have cost factors.”

Lewenstein also said national security issues at the federal level have overshadowed higher education, which he found unfortunate.

“We need a much more highly skilled workforce, and higher education is the venue by which people get trained for skilled occupations,” Lewenstein said.

“If we don’t have the capital to carry out the jobs that we need, then we’re all going to suffer economically.”

Elected officials, he said, often take universities for granted, and people involved in the university system should do all they can to educate politicians on the role of universities in the community.

Although the candidates’ policies could eventually affect the University, University director of federal relations John Engelen said the University has no preference as to who is nominated for the Democratic Party or who is eventually elected.

“My view is that we’re a public university, and it’s not really our role to endorse candidates,” he said. “We’ll work with whoever is elected.”

Representatives from Dean’s and Edwards’ campaigns were unavailable for comment.