PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
Higher Education: Not High on the Agenda

by Kenneth T. Walsh

Early learning is a hot political topic these days. Every major presidential contender talks endlessly about how to improve education from kindergarten through 12th grade, and most of the candidates have Kenneth J. Walshproposed eye-catching agendas to do the job, ranging from higher federal spending for primary and secondary schools to standardized testing for students. Clearly, the campaigns have concluded that younger parents with small kids will be among the most important swing voters in this year's elections.

That leaves higher education at a comparative disadvantage in the public debate. But post-secondary education is not being ignored altogether.

Last December, Vice President Al Gore announced an education program that encourages "lifetime learning" among adults—a key part of his overall agenda. In fact, Gore favors more of a federal role in education than any other presidential candidate. His plans would be financed by the creation of an education trust fund consisting of 10 percent of the surplus that is not allocated to Social Security, or reducing the national debt—estimated at several billion dollars a year under current projections.

Higher Education:  Not High on the AgendaGore favors tax-free savings accounts that would allow families to save for college and let adults, companies, and labor unions put money aside for job training. He has endorsed a program of $10,000 grants for future teachers who are still in school. And the vice president is mulling further initiatives that would foster lifetime learning through low-income loans, grants, tax incentives, scholarships, and other techniques. Gore is also one of the government's leading advocates of federal aid to foster university research and scientific training.

Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, Gore's lone competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been playing down the federal role in education, saying it's mostly a local and state issue. But Bradley does favor adding 400,000 kids to the Head Start early-education program, hiring 60,000 new teachers in urban and rural districts, and increasing federal grants to community colleges to $400 million a year, an increase of about 30 percent. Those funds could be funneled into job placement programs for students in local areas or used to retrain older workers whose jobs have been eliminated or drastically changed by technology. Bradley also wants to forgive education loans for 60,000 college students, high school graduates, and younger professionals who agree to teach in poor schools.

On the Republican side, affirmative action is, as always, a flashpoint issue. Republican Governor George W. Bush of Texas wants to encourage state colleges and universities to replace race in their admissions evaluations with a merit-based approach that admits the top students from every high school, no matter their color or ethnic background. "He believes in providing equal opportunity and not quotas," says a Bush spokesman.

Bush models his idea on a class-rank approach he is using in Texas, where admission to a state university is guaranteed to the top 10 percent of students graduating from every high school in the state. The plan was implemented after a federal court prohibited the use of racial preferences in Texas college admissions. This class-rank procedure is already a trend nationally because it enables politicians to placate those offended by race-based decision-making but at the same time appeal to minorities who believe they need a boost. The University of California adopted a similar system after voters there approved a ban on affirmative action. And Bush's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is establishing a guaranteed admissions plan for the top 20 percent of high-school graduates in his state.

Bush would also make permanent a tax credit for corporate-sponsored research and development, which often involves universities. (Congress recently extended it through 2004, with a $13.1 billion price tag.) Bush would allow taxpayers who do not itemize—an estimated 70 percent of all filers—to deduct charitable contributions. He also proposes increasing the amount that corporations can deduct for charitable donations. Both these provisions could encourage giving to colleges and universities. Finally, Bush would increase from $500 to $5,000 the annual amount that Americans could set aside for tax-free education savings accounts.

Arizona Senator John McCain, Bush's main competitor for the Republican nomination, favors more federal support for higher education but has suggested tying federal aid to a student's commitment to serve in the military or the Peace Corps, or work on some other worthwhile federal program. McCain also would expand HOPE scholarships, which began in 1997 and allow individuals to claim a tax credit for college expenses. He favors increasing federal grants for needy students, and expanding the amount families could contribute to education "IRAs."

Those proposals concerning post-secondary education may pale in comparison to the huge amounts of money and political attention being lavished on early learning, especially K-12. But the political calculus has changed. With young parents now considered a key constituency, most of the action—and the federal bucks—will be going to primary and secondary education for the foreseeable future.

       Kenneth T. Walsh is the senior White House correspondent
      U.S. News & World Report.