A Democratic White House, a Republican Congress, and Higher Education: Now What?

Higher education on the national agenda

As President Obama begins the final two years of his second term, and as the next Congress takes office with both houses controlled by the Republicans, what might we expect to see coming out of Washington that will change the landscape for higher education?

College Rating Plan

In August 2013, the Obama White House announced a plan to create a rating system for colleges and universities. In the face of considerable opposition from many higher education organizations and individual campuses regarding the wisdom of any such plan, and the criteria to be used for rating campuses, the timeline for its release has been repeatedly extended.

The likelihood that the new Congress would approve any rating plan, let alone one emanating from the Obama White House, seems remote. A recent article in Politico (“GOP Gives Feds’ College Rating Plan an F”) quotes Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training: “They’re [the White House] getting involved in something they have no business getting involved with. Absolutely, it’s overreach.” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) plans to introduce legislation in the Senate to cut off funding for the rating plan.

Mark the college ratings plan “dead on arrival.”

Federal Research Grants

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chair of the House Science Committee, wants to mandate that all grant proposals sent to the National Science Foundation include a summary that explains the project’s value to society. Academic researchers are concerned that such a requirement would lead to political interference in the awarding of research grants, with public funds being directed preferentially toward (or away from) partisan priorities (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “What Do House Republicans Want from the NSF?” Dec. 8, 2014). This issue is likely to become particularly acute regarding grants in the social sciences, for climate change, and for public K-12 education. Expect a high-profile fight.

Federal Funding of Higher Education

Under a compromise bill introduced in early December, before Congress recessed for the holidays, federal spending for student aid would stay fundamentally flat for the rest of the federal fiscal year—with the exception of a $300 million reduction in Pell grants, partially offset by modest increases in federal work-study and certain college preparatory programs.

This issue will certainly be highly contentious later this calendar year, as pressure mounts to reduce federal deficits by reducing federal spending – and with funding for the Department of Defense exempted from reduction, cuts in federal spending must come from the relatively small portion of the budget that represents discretionary spending in the domestic agenda. It’s too soon to predict exactly how federal funding for higher education will change, or how much of an impact it will have on students and their families, but I’m not at all sanguine regarding this issue.


In order to be eligible to receive federal funds, higher education institutions must be accredited. Accreditation is conferred by one of seven regional accrediting organizations through a review process involving, among other things, visits to the candidate campus by faculty and administrators of institutions that are already accredited.

For reasons that I cannot entirely comprehend, the regional accreditors have, in recent years, found themselves subject to considerable criticism from elected officials in Washington. A few years ago, there was a movement afoot to create a single national accreditor, overseen by the Department of Education. At present, the conversation has moved in the opposite direction: to expand accrediting programs greatly, by making them state-based rather than regional. This idea was strongly supported by Senate Republicans when they were in the minority in the last Congress. It remains to be seen if the idea of state-based accreditation will become a priority in the new Congress, with its Republican majority.

This is not a trivial issue. Accreditation provides access to federal funds, including Pell grants and federally subsidized loans. The for-profit institutions have relied on receiving a disproportionate fraction of these funds, yet have a disproportionate number of students who fail to complete their programs of study, and who subsequently default on their loans. State-based accreditation would almost surely result in a significant increase in the number and size of for-profit institutions, an outcome that Republicans in the House and Senate generally favor, and that Democrats generally oppose. If a bill that proposes state-based accreditation is posted, expect lots of fireworks.

America’s College Promise

On Jan. 9, President Obama announced an initiative to create a program wherein community colleges would be tuition-free for “responsible students.” The intent of the plan is to increase rather dramatically the number of community college graduates and, in that way, enhance the earning power of many more American adults.

There are many points of controversy with this plan, mostly surrounding cost to the taxpayer, and the requirement that states contribute 25 percent of the cost. The blogosphere erupted on the day of the announcement, and it is too soon to say whether this idea will grow legs. I’ll devote the next installment of this blog to an in-depth review of the pros and cons of the America’s College Promise proposal.


For years, higher education officials tried to get the attention of federal elected officials. “Just an occasional mention in the State of the Union is all we ask.” Well, higher education is certainly on the national radar screen at the moment. Is it time to ask, “Be careful what you wish for?”