Sen. Edward Kennedy, Longtime Champion of Higher Education, Dies at 77

Getty Images

Sen. Edward Kennedy, 1932-2009.
August 26, 2009

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a lifelong champion of equal rights and educational opportunity, died late Tuesday at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass. He was 77 and had been in poor health since he received a diagnosis of brain cancer last year.

Mr. Kennedy, who represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate for more than four decades, had a hand in the creation of nearly every major federal student-aid program, from Pell Grants in 1972 to the Academic Competitiveness and Smart Grants for high-achieving, low-income students in 2006. In the 1990s, he was a chief architect of the federal direct-loan program, in which the government lends money directly to students through their colleges, and one of its staunchest supporters in the Senate.

Senator Kennedy was also one of the most reliable defenders of student aid, consistently opposing efforts to eliminate programs and offering dozens of budget amendments to increase the maximum Pell Grant.

But he was perhaps best known for his efforts to promote civil rights and national service, a legacy he inherited from his brother, President John F. Kennedy. In his 2006 book, America Back on Track, Senator Kennedy wrote: "Nothing has made me prouder as a U.S. senator than to participate in the expansion of civil and other rights to include all Americans."

The youngest of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy, an ambassador and chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and Rose Fitzgerald, a congressman's daughter, Mr. Kennedy was born into privilege but devoted his career to serving the less fortunate.

To his critics, Senator Kennedy was the quintessential “tax and spend” liberal, a big-government Democrat who meant well but failed to consider the consequences of his fiscal generosity. The critics argued that his efforts to increase student aid drove up college tuition, while costing taxpayers millions of dollars in turn.

“Senator Kennedy probably really believed he was doing a service for society when he championed more aid for more people, but that required looking past or downplaying the harder-to-see—but very real—costs and waste,” said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom, at the Cato Institute. “What’s best for all Americans often isn’t what seems most generous or politically easiest, and it's a lesson we could all learn about federal student aid.”

But while Mr. Kennedy often clashed with Republicans, he was also a pragmatist, and some of his most productive alliances were with conservative legislators, including Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah. Admirers said he had a gift for the persuasion and political horse-trading that define Washington.

"He was a consummate legislator," said Clare M. Cotton, former president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. "He was a master of the legislative process."

When he couldn't muster a majority, Senator Kennedy was no less commanding a presence, his face reddening and voice echoing off the marble as he spoke on the Senate floor. Even his opponents admitted to admiring the earnestness with which he defended a cause.

And like any successful senator, Mr. Kennedy looked out for his own, defending the interests of Massachusetts' many colleges. Throughout his career, he opposed efforts to update the formula that is used to distribute campus-based aid, knowing that the existing formula benefited his state's older, more-established institutions.

He also added language to a 1992 bill renewing the Higher Education Act that allowed the Overlap Group, which included eight colleges in his home state, to collaborate in the awarding of student aid. The language enabled the colleges, which then stood accused of violating federal antitrust laws, to continue to share some information about their financial-aid packages.

Charles M. Vest, who was then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the group's members, said Mr. Kennedy met annually with leaders of Massachusetts' colleges and was remarkably responsive to their needs.

"One thing I really valued about Senator Kennedy was that I never placed a call to him on a research or education issue that he didn't personally return," said Mr. Vest, who is now president of the National Academy of Engineering. "That was really impressive for such a powerful member of Congress."

Winning Over Academe

But the senator wasn't always embraced by academe. When he ran for office, in 1962, to fill the remaining two years of his brother John's term, a leading Harvard Law School professor circulated a scathing letter that called him a "bumptious newcomer" and a "coattail candidate" with a "mediocre" academic career, according to a 1999 biography of Senator Kennedy by Adam Clymer. Word that the youngest Kennedy had been expelled from Harvard University for cheating on a Spanish examination further hurt his standing among Massachusetts' academics.

But Mr. Kennedy, who was only three years out of law school when he announced his candidacy, won the support of a trio of scholars at Harvard and MIT who had influence in Washington. His campaign "crowded them into a small television studio to look like the vanguard of an academic host," Mr. Clymer wrote.

Mr. Kennedy went on to win the election, arriving in Washington in time to witness the birth of federal student-aid policy. Within three years of his election, Congress had enacted a series of bills, including the Higher Education Act of 1965, that created a host of student-aid programs. Senator Kennedy's chief contribution to the 1965 bill was the National Teachers Corps, a domestic education version of the Peace Corps, which his brother John had created. The program, which closed in the early 1980s, provided stipends to student teachers who spent two years working in low-income communities.

Mr. Kennedy delivered his "maiden speech" as a senator—his first major commentary from the Senate floor—on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and co-sponsored two major civil-rights measures of the 1970s: the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which guaranteed a "free and appropriate" public education for disabled students, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law that banned sex discrimination at institutions receiving federal funds and led to a boom in women's participation in college sports.

He became chairman of what was then known as the Labor and Human Resources Committee in 1987, a post he held until Republicans took control of Congress, in 1995. During that period, he generally deferred to Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Democrat from Rhode Island, on matters of education policy.

But Senator Kennedy did take the lead in defending Title IX. One of the first bills he introduced after he became chairman sought to override a 1984 Supreme Court ruling, in Grove City College v. Bell, that found that the gender-equity law applied only to college programs that directly received federal aid, not all programs across an institution. The bill, which Congress passed in 1988, required colleges receiving federal funds to comply with the law in all of its operations.

In 1990, Senator Kennedy collaborated with Mr. Hatch on the Americans With Disabilities Act, which barred discrimination against disabled people in employment, public facilities, and transportation, and the National and Community Service Act, which authorized grants to elementary and secondary schools for service-learning programs, a precursor to the AmeriCorps national-service program.

Shirley S. Sagawa, an aide to Mr. Kennedy at the time, said the senator visited several service-learning programs in Massachusetts after the bill passed and was particularly taken with one in Springfield, in which kindergartners prepared meals for the homeless. The image that stayed with him was of children folding napkins. For years after the visit, he would tell the story of the napkin-folding kindergartners when arguing against cuts in service-learning programs. He told the tale so often that it became a joke in the office; aides dubbed it the "napkin-folding program."

Advocate for Direct Lending

As chairman of the education committee in the 1990s, Senator Kennedy also played a key role in the creation of direct lending.

Mr. Kennedy had first proposed creating such a program in 1978, along with Sen. Henry L. Bellmon, a Republican from Oklahoma. But the Congressional Budget Office, which provides cost estimates to Congress, said the program would be too expensive, and the plan went nowhere.

The idea had legs, though, and Sen. Paul Simon, a Democrat from Illinois, and Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Republican from Minnesota, revived the proposal in the early 1990s. By then, the budget office had changed its accounting rules, and direct lending was seen as a potential cost-saver. With Senator Kennedy's support, a pilot of the program was included in the 1992 legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

The following year, Bill Clinton took office as president and almost immediately proposed eliminating the bank-based guaranteed-loan system and replacing it with direct lending. When lenders and some Republicans objected, Senator Kennedy helped craft a compromise that allowed colleges to choose between direct lending and the guaranteed-loan program.

Mr. Kennedy championed direct lending for the rest of his career, battling Republican efforts to kill or cap the program. In 2007, Congress approved a Kennedy-sponsored measure that slashed lender subsidies in the bank-based program and directed the savings to student aid. The bill, and other efforts by Mr. Kennedy to expand direct lending, made him unpopular with lenders.

Mr. Kennedy also worked closely with President Clinton on a bill that created AmeriCorps and other service programs, calling the measure "as important to the nation as anything we do on the economy or health care or the other serious issues before us."

Around the same time, Senator Kennedy added language to the 1992 legislation to renew the Higher Education Act that exempted colleges from some provisions of antitrust law. The language, which was prompted by an antitrust lawsuit the Justice Department had filed against MIT, was a boon to the Overlap Group, an association of 23 elite institutions—including Harvard, MIT, and Amherst and Williams Colleges—that had met annually to determine aid awards for every student admitted to more than one of them.

Critics said the colleges' talks represented collusion that drove up the price charged to those students, who were not offered a competitive choice among colleges based on cost. The colleges said their consultation allowed them to maximize their use of limited student-aid dollars, by avoiding pointless bidding wars over top students and by spreading the money among the students who needed it most.

The new law allowed members of the group to share limited amounts of information about their approaches to awarding student aid, provided that they did not compare individual award packages and agreed to make need-blind admissions.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, Senator Kennedy fought the administration's attempts to abolish the TRIO college-preparatory programs, arguing that college access was key to equal opportunity. Joan Becker, who directs the TRIO programs at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said Mr. Kennedy "believed that if low-income students don't have access to postsecondary education, then the democratic ideals on which this nation was founded could not be a reality."

In 2003, Mr. Kennedy took aim at legacy admissions, one of a few efforts that made him unpopular among colleges. Initially he proposed penalizing colleges that gave preferences to the children of alumni as well as those that employed early-decision admissions policies, arguing that they put low-income students at a disadvantage. But when colleges protested, he softened his approach, offering a bill that would have required colleges to provide the federal government with data on the percentage of freshmen at each institution who benefited from early-decision and legacy admissions policies. To colleges' relief, even that bill went nowhere.

Also during the Bush presidency, Senator Kennedy collaborated with Republicans on two key education measures: the No Child Left Behind Act, which linked federal aid to student assessment in elementary and secondary education, and a deficit-reduction measure that created two new grant programs for low-income students—Academic Competitiveness Grants and Smart Grants. But he said he felt betrayed when Republicans failed to fully finance the No Child Left Behind law and restricted the grant aid to high-achieving students and mathematics and science majors.

Changes in Loan Programs

When Democrats recaptured control of Congress, in 2006, Mr. Kennedy regained the chairmanship and with his counterpart in the U.S. House of Representatives made cutting the interest rate on federal student loans a centerpiece of the Democratic agenda. The plan was included in the 2007 bill that cut lender subsidies and increased student aid.

Mr. Kennedy also showed an early concern about conflicts of interest in student-loan programs, offering legislation to crack down on kickbacks from lenders to colleges months before New York's attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, began his investigation into the industry. The bill became a model for the conflict-of-interest regulations issued by the Education Department in 2007, and was the basis for changes enacted in the 2008 legislation to renew the Higher Education Act.

He also sponsored a bill to test the concept of using an auction to set subsidy rates on federal student loans, an idea he had proposed as early as 1998. The bill, which called for banks and other lenders to compete for the right to make PLUS loans to parents and graduate students based on the size of the subsidy they would accept, was wrapped into the 2008 reauthorization measure, though the Education Department later canceled the auction after only a handful of lenders applied to participate.

In May 2008, Senator Kennedy was told he had a malignant brain tumor, and he took a leave from Congress to seek treatment. But he remained actively involved in the final months of negotiations over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, reading every memorandum his staff sent him, as he had throughout his career.

Former aides to Senator Kennedy say he worked extremely hard and demanded the same of his staff. He surrounded himself with some of the sharpest minds in Washington, but he never rested on their recommendations, insisting that he understand the nuances of policies himself, aides said. Jane Oates, who worked for Mr. Kennedy for a decade, said the senator sometimes returned memos with dozens of questions written at the end. His aides would try to anticipate all of his inquiries, but they rarely could.

"He knew every detail of every bill he voted on," said Ms. Oates, who now serves as the Labor Department's assistant secretary for employment and training administration. "He was like a human sponge."

Ms. Oates said he never forgot anyone he had met either, and would often ask aides weeks later what had become of them. "He'd say, 'What ever happened to that lady in Montgomery County whose daughter had a problem with a loan?'"

"Everything with him was personal," she said. "Everything was about putting a face on the issue."

'Old-School Senator'

Terry W. Hartle, another former longtime aide, said Mr. Kennedy was also an "old-school senator," someone who cared about the Senate as an institution and valued its tradition of bipartisanship.

"He was 100 percent a Democrat, but, at the end of the day, he wanted to do the people's business, and that usually meant working across the aisle," said Mr. Hartle, who is now senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

Mr. Hartle said it was "hard to imagine education policy without Senator Kennedy's distinctive voice."

The senator, he said, is "irreplaceable."