On the Road to Increased College Affordability

Over the next couple of weeks, Higher Ed Watch will offer Congressional Democrats, Republicans, and the Bush Administration political and detailed policy advice on how to increase college affordability. We begin with a political lay of the land, because it's where policy begins and ends.

The Players:

The Democrats: A top, top priority of Congressional Democrats is to increase college affordability by cutting student loan interest rates in half and increasing the maximum Pell Grant by $1,000. They ran on that agenda. They know it speaks to middle class swing voters. They want to deliver.

The Bush Administration: College affordability may speak to middle class swing voters, but President Bush doesnt face the voters again. He faces history. Accordingly, the President's education priority is to extend and consolidate the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) a signature accomplishment of his presidency.

Three times in his first post-November election press conference, President Bush referenced his desire to work with the new Democratic majority on NCLB reauthorization. We expect to hear about NCLB in the State of the Union Address and see a proposal in the Presidents February budget. Watch for two key components of Bushs NCLB reauthorization proposal to center on high school reform and teachers. If the past is prologue, theyll first be floated in late December or early January.

Congressional Republicans: Much like many Congressional Democrats over at least the last two years, Congressional Republicans now will prioritize winning back power over making policy. This Congressional Republican and maybe this one care about NCLB, but most dont. Their goals will be to: (i) attack unpopular or make unpopular various legislative initiatives advanced by the Democratic majority, (ii) not get triangulated, and (iii) curry favor with the money interests that will bankroll their next campaign.

Timing:

Early in 2007, despite the Presidents bully pulpit and best efforts, college affordability will dominate the Congressional education agenda. NCLB is too big, too controversial, and too inadequately understood by new Members of Congress to change and move quickly.

Higher ed is mainly about money, and therefore, easier to move legislatively than NCLB. Because student loans reach the middle class more than Pell Grants, expect Congress to start with student loans.

The Message War:

Republicans used to argue against increasing financial aid claiming the Democrats just want to tax and spend. They still make that argument against Democratic efforts to cut student loan interest rates.

But Democrats have come up with a good policy answer and snappy message of their own. Rather than raising taxes, Democrats, some thoughtful Republicans, and the New America Foundation as well have proposed to cut unnecessary government subsidies to student loan providers and shift funds to student loan borrowers instead. That posture counters the "tax and spend" message substantively and sets up a compelling counter message of students, not banks. Disclosure: our Education Policy Director used to work for the Democratic Senators Pell and Kennedy.

Because "students, not banks" beats "tax and spend" as a message, Congressional Republicans have toyed with a different message. Watch for them to say increasingly that "interest rates aren't the problem; skyrocketing tuition is the problem."

Higher Ed Watch thinks that wont work for two main reasons. First, just because tuition is skyrocketing doesnt mean folks dont want help with college costs now. Congressional Republicans know that. They passed a giant Medicare prescription drug bill to help seniors with prescription drug costs now while doing comparably little to stop skyrocketing health care costs. And they didn't even have an offset for prescription drug spending. Second, Congressional Republicans dont have a good idea as to what to do about skyrocketing tuition other than this proposal of a couple of years ago, which was pilloried in the press, and which this man (God rest his soul), not to mention these guys, would call a price control. They dropped it.

Tactics:

If Congressional Democrats were really cynical (dare we think), independent of its substantive merits, they'd take the skyrocketing tuition message off the table by embracing the idea that Congressmen Boehner (R-OH) and McKeon (R-CA) floated and subsequently dropped.

Higher Ed Watch staff has suggested two different answers to the skyrocketing tuition problem. One of them, our truth-in-tuition idea, was endorsed by Bruce Reed and Congressman Rahm Emanuel here. Maybe this new Member of the Senate Education Committee, who is from the same state as Congressman Emanuel and whose state has a similar truth-in-tuition policy, will also embrace the idea.

But we at Higher Ed Watch want to try to find a more comprehensive and bipartisan, in fact ideally non-partisan, way to promote college access and affordability while also stemming the college cost growth problem. In the coming days, were going to sketch out federal policy options from which a political route might be discerned. Our ultimate goal is to identify a policy that increases college affordability and route that works for at least two of the decision making parties Congressional Democrats, the Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans.

At least two of three. Remember that. Two of three.

Author:

Michael Dannenberg