With Obama's Win, Colleges Anticipate 4 More Years of Reform

Carolyn Kaster, AP Images

President Obama visited a Chicago campaign office on the morning of Election Day.
November 07, 2012

American voters re-elected Barack Obama as president on Tuesday, extending the White House stay of an administration that has focused on expanding federal student aid as well as tightening regulations on colleges and universities.

Economic concerns took center stage over the course of the 2012 presidential race, as both campaigns sought to make the case for why their candidate was best equipped to lead a nation still recovering from an economic recession. Higher-education issues were often embedded in broader economic narratives. Both campaigns responded to anxiety over the cost of a college education, the unemployment rate for recent college graduates, and the burden of student-loan debt, which reached the $1-trillion milestone as the campaign was beginning this year.

Discussing higher-education policies on the campaign trail, Mr. Obama touted his administration's expansion of federal aid programs, which included increasing funds for Pell Grants and a more generous income-based repayment program for student loans. His campaign trumpeted as a success the end of the federal bank-based lending program, a change that proponents said converted wasteful taxpayer subsidies for banks into direct aid for students.

In offering policies to speed up the economic recovery, the president often highlighted the role of community colleges in career training, proposing a program that would provide federal money to community colleges and states with the goal of training about two million workers.

With Mr. Obama's re-election, "we expect to see that continued emphasis on what our institutions do," said David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Looking forward to a second Obama term, many other higher-education advocates said they expected the president's support for federal student-aid programs to continue, albeit under increased budgetary pressure as Congress wrestles with a host of difficult fiscal issues in the coming months.

Regulatory Push

A re-elected President Obama will most likely continue to sidestep a bitterly divided Congress and seek to change education policy through his own executive and regulatory authority, higher-education advocates said.

Over the past four years, the Obama administration has argued that it will not wait for Congress to pass what it has viewed as needed education reforms in both schools and higher education.

Some of the administration's executive action has been relatively uncontroversial. The president signed an executive order aimed at strengthening consumer protections for student veterans, for instance. More recently, the administration used a regulatory maneuver to speed up the start of the more generous repayment program for borrowers of federal loans.

Other executive action has been more fraught. For-profit colleges have protested the regulatory scrutiny they've received from the Department of Education, while traditional institutions have also expressed concern over what they view as unnecessary and burdensome requirements.

The Obama administration over the past four years "sharply expanded the federal government's role in overseeing colleges and universities, often with no evidence that there was a serious problem that needed regulation," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. He cited as examples some of the Education Department's regulations on gainful employment, state authorization of online programs, and academic issues like the definition of a credit hour.

"We assume, unfortunately, that their willingness to impose comprehensive regulations on postsecondary institutions will continue unabated," Mr. Hartle said.

More specifically, Robert L. Moran, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said he expected the administration to continue its "aggressive push on program integrity," such as the forthcoming regulations on teacher-education programs.

Further Goals

One unanswered question going into Mr. Obama's second term is how—and with how much gusto—his administration will forge ahead with the president's stated goal of reducing by half the rate of tuition growth over the next decade. Mr. Obama said in this year's State of the Union address and in a later speech at the University of Michigan that he wanted to tie some federal aid to an institution's ability to slow the growth of tuition.

During the campaign this year, Mr. Obama cited that plan, along with more generous loan-repayment programs, as part of his college-affordability agenda.

Some higher-education advocates said it was unclear how much of the president's plan for cutting tuition growth was political rhetoric and how much would translate into actual policy proposals. The administration has not laid out the specifics of how it would go about achieving its goal.

"There is no proposal as yet," said Mr. Hartle. "The administration has discussed it a great deal this year—­including discussions with the higher-education community—but they never put a formal proposal together."

As Congressional races concluded, Democrats were set to hold on to their majority in the Senate, and Republicans retained their control of the House of Representatives. The leadership of the Congressional education committees will remain roughly the same, though Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is likely to replace Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming as the top Republican on the Senate education committee because Mr. Enzi's term as ranking member is limited.

At a minimum, the debate over reauthorizing the Higher Education Act will take shape during the next Congress, some of which will be affected by how federal aid programs fare during the negotiations in the coming months over the deficit and expiring tax cuts.

The "immediate, looming crisis" facing President Obama is the so-called fiscal cliff, Mr. Hartle said. He added, however, that it's difficult to predict how the lame-duck session of Congress and the newly elected lawmakers will handle those issues because they may get wrapped up in larger deals.

The automatic spending cuts that will occur on January 1 unless Congress acts would have a modest impact on higher-education programs, with the exception of federal research support, which would be decimated, Mr. Hartle said.