President Obama’s 2017 Budget May Have Gotten Rejected, But Some Higher Education Ideas Deserve To Survive

Posted By Derek Johnson on February 17, 2016 at 11:29 am
President Obama’s 2017 Budget May Have Gotten Rejected, But Some Higher Education Ideas Deserve To Survive
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew testifying before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on President Obama's fiscal 2017 budget in Washington. Alex Brandon, AP Images.

With a Congress controlled by the opposition party, President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget proposal was already unlikely to be anything more than aspirational, an opportunity for the administration to highlight, publicize and contrast its ideas for the future of federal policy.

This year, however, Republican leaders aren’t even pretending that they will use Obama’s proposal as a blueprint for federal spending. For the first time in four decades, Congress won’t even hold hearings to consider the administration’s budget before rejecting it.

“President Obama will leave office having never proposed a budget that balances—ever. This isn’t even a budget so much as it is a progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hardworking Americans,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in a statement.

With that, the chances of Obama’s budget proposal having any impact on federal higher education policy dropped from “slim” to “none.” As such, a comprehensive breakdown of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2017 Budget would provide little value at this point. But the president’s budget doesn’t just represent administration and White House priorities. In many ways, it reflects the hard-fought consensus of the Departments and their leadership, policy think tanks and industry experts. Even if it never gets a vote in Congress, there’s a good chance that some of these ideas will wind up being presented to the next incoming president, Republican or Democrat.

As such, here are some new higher education policy proposals from the Obama budget that probably deserve to survive this episode and receive consideration next year:

Respect for STEM

The administration proposes $1 billion in new grant funding to help states attract and retain high-quality teachers in STEM-related fields like mathematics and science. Right now, there is a shortage of qualified teachers in these subjects across the nation, especially in low-income and minority school districts. In states like Florida, these grants have had success keeping good teachers in high-need areas by helping pay off their tuition and student loan bills if they agree to teach these subjects in low-income or minority-heavy school districts.

Supplementing these state policies with something like matching federal grants could go a long way to making the hardest teaching jobs a little less thankless.

AB(R)C: Always Be Rewarding Closers

College costs too much, but a lot of experts believe the casual pace of many students is leaving them in a deeper financial hole than necessary. The administration is seeking $2 billion in new spending to increase the maximum Pell Grant eligibility for students who are taking a full course load and are on track to graduate in four years. Researchers have argued that a majority of college students do not graduate within four years and are incurring thousands of dollars in additional debt as a result.

Organizations like Complete College America have pointed to research showing that students who don’t graduate within four years are significantly less likely to graduate at all and have higher averages of student debt per year than those who do. The administration also proposes $548 million to reward colleges who enroll and graduate low-income students on time.

four year myth on time graduation rates are far too low

Source: Complete College America, “The Four Year Myth”

In an era where policymakers are responding to sky-high student debt by pushing wholesale reforms to the higher education and financial aid system, simply encouraging students to graduate college within four years can save them thousands of dollars. Investing a little bit more money towards that end could provide a substantial net benefit.

Closing the 90-10 veteran loophole

Current federal law mandates that for-profit higher education institutions can’t use federal student aid dollars to make up more than 90 percent of their yearly revenue. The principle behind this rule is that if a school provides legitimate and credible education services, it should not have trouble finding scholarships, private donations and other sources of revenue outside of the federal government.

While this rule was designed to keep taxpayers from propping up low-performing for-profit schools, a loophole in the current law states that money used by military veterans from the GI Bill or Department of Defense’s tuition-assistance program don’t count towards this total. This has caused for-profit schools to aggressively ramp up marketing efforts to military veterans and their families. The end result is that for many for-profit schools, most of the remaining 10 percent of their revenue comes from the same source as the other 90: the federal government and taxpayers.

Politically, this is a slam-dunk issue for whoever steps into the White House next year, regardless of party. The spirit and purpose of the 90-10 rule is clearly being violated, and our nation’s veterans are suffering the brunt of the consequences with high debt and low-quality degrees. Making military funds count towards a school’s federal aid totals will put a stop to the industry’s deceptive marketing strategies.

Summer vocation

It’s popular in the higher education world to claim that the modern economy will eventually expect every worker to have a college degree. This is not strictly true; there are still many industries where vocational training and certification programs are just as valuable, from electricians and plumbers to computer programmers and dental hygienists.

It’s safe to say that the administration’s free community college proposal will probably die when Obama leaves office: Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have denounced it and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have their own ambitious college funding proposals. However, one aspect of his budget that may live on is their investment in community college vocational training programs like the American Technical Training Fund, which asks for $75 million to “support the development, operation, and expansion of innovative, evidence=-based, tuition-free, short-term, or accelerated job training.” There’s also the Teacher and Principal Pathways program, which would provide $125 million in new grant funding to higher education institutions that develop teacher preparedness training. Other proposals like the Second Chance Pell, which reinstates Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, may become political footballs, but, in general, both parties have been supportive of subsidizing vocational training in the same way we do college.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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