Clinton: College degree should be higher priority

by Brian Bakst

and Joe Carlson

While labelling 1997 “the most important year in a generation for education,” President Clinton delivered an emphatic plea Tuesday to make a college degree as universal as a high school diploma.
Clinton, during his State of the Union address to Congress, touted tuition tax breaks and student loan deductions enacted last year for helping lower the barriers to higher education. He also pushed for increased allocations to the country’s major research institutes to expedite the search for cures to AIDS and cancer.
“I have something to say to each and every American family listening tonight: Your children can go to college,” Clinton said, drawing some of the applause that consumed more than 22 minutes of the 73-minute speech.
The president also: proclaimed the federal budget will be in balance by 1999; urged Congress to protect the viability of Social Security; denounced Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for escalating tensions in the Middle East; and pushed for expanded trade authority and arms agreements.
Whether Clinton will be able to achieve his ambitious 1998 agenda could hinge on his ability to quell rumors of a White House sex scandal between he and former intern Monica Lewinsky. The allegations, coupled with claims he asked Lewinsky to lie about the alleged affair, hung over Clinton during the week leading up to the address.
“A highly likely outcome here is this will drag on and on and on and we will never know the truth,” said Virginia Gray, a University political science professor, “and if that happens it will be hard for him to get legislation passed because there will always be these doubts and always be this media attention.”
But Gray suspects Clinton’s education initiatives will fare better than more politically divisive ones such as Medicare changes and budget surplus spending options.
“The accusations aren’t the kind that would prohibit the actions he is proposing,” said Todd Meyer, an extension student who watched the speech with about 15 people in Coffman Union.
Still, Clinton’s plans for higher education are unclear. While he asked for a significant but unspecified increase in research funding, he only spoke of past initiatives for students.
“With respect to students and financial aid, I didn’t hear anything new,” said Craig Swan, vice provost for undergraduate education. “In fairness, there really were a lot of changes last year.”
In 1997, Congress passed tax-sheltered family savings plans for college tuition accounts and up to $1,500-per-year tax credits for the first two years of college. Both initiatives were part of the 10-point education plan he proposed during last year’s address.
“It’s like a Band-Aid,” Meyer said. “What they really need is easier-to-qualify-for and lower-interest loans.”
“He can dish out a lot of goodies on a short-term basis, but does he have the will and the votes to dish them out on a long-term basis?” asked Matt Curry, a College Republican representative.
Clinton also told colleges they need to do more to extend an arm into elementary schools to prepare children for college at an earlier age.
It’s their duty, Clinton said, “to reach out to disadvantaged students starting in the sixth grade so they too will know they can go on to college.”
Swan said the University is in the process of doing just that. He and other officials have met with representatives from local school districts to discuss such outreach programs. Swan went a step further, saying colleges could reach even deeper into elementary schools.