January 23, 2009

Obama Plans to Make Higher Ed. Accessible for All U. S. Students

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President Barack Obama pledged to improve schools, colleges and universities to meet new technological standards and accessibility in his Inaugural address on Tuesday. This pledge, which upholds Obama’s promise during his campaign, marks a shift in funding for research, financial aid, college accessibility and preparedness.
Citing growing college costs and excessive debt from college loans, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden outlined several plans to make attending college more accessible. Such proposals include a refundable tax credit that would make the first $4,000 of college expenses “free,” a simplified application process for financial aid, Pell Grants for low income students and the elimination of costly bank subsidies on private college loans outlined in their “Plan to Put College in Reach.”
Plans also include an influx of funding for research, according to Scott Jaschik ’85, CEO and editor of Inside Higher Education.
“If you look at Bush and the economy, Bush used taxes to influence the economy. Obama uses investments. There is going to be money for aid and research,” Jaschik said.
Increases in aid and Pell grants could help Cornell students, given that colleges graduating large numbers of students who receive such grants would benefit, said Stephen Johnson, vice president of Government and Community Relations for Cornell.
The maximum amount of money received from a Pell grant would increase from $4,050 to $5,100 under Obama’s plan.
Thomas C. Keane, director of Financial Aid for Scholarships and Policy Analysis in the Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment, stated in an email that roughly 1,800 Cornell students receive Pell grants each year.
“It’s hard to predict the impact at Cornell because our tuition is relatively high compared to the Pell Grant amount,” Keane stated. “More importantly for Cornell are the changes in financial aid policy that we’ve made over the last year in reducing the loan burdens on students.”
A simplification of the financial aid application process would not necessarily affect Cornell students because the University has a separate process for aid that comes directly from Cornell. In 2007-2008, Cornell undergraduates received under $11 million in federal grant aid, while they received over $109 in grant aid from Cornell, according to Keane.
The Cornell financial aid application process is a bit more complicated because we provide much more grant aid funding to our students than the federal government does,” he wrote.
However, it is difficult to predict the exact changes that will take place since President Obama’s budget details will not be released for nearly a month. There is evidence, though, of education spending in the House of Representatives stimulus bill, which was marked up on Wednesday, at the Senate hearings for Arne Duncan, secretary of education.
The details of the stimulus package were negotiated closely with the Obama Administration to ensure that science and educational funding are priorities.
“People in the [Obama] administration said, ‘this is what we want and this is what we want to fund,’” said Diane Miller, director of Federal Government Relations at Cornell.
The bill includes funding for public and private institutions, but there is evidence of some prejudice against well-endowed colleges that could be worrisome, according to Johnson.
Due to the global financial crisis, there is an emphasis on funding for state schools because of lower state budgets and a need to keep state schools competitive with private institutions, since they cannot raise tuition, according to Miller.
“[But] I don’t think there will ever be anything in Congress that says endowed colleges can’t compete for funding,” Miller said.
During the hearing for Secretary Duncan, there was general discussion of higher education funding but little specificity. Secretary Duncan mentioned several steps to improve student achievement, including improved teacher training and increased college access.
The steps include strategic investment in the future by training good teachers and the “next generation,” keeping the “lower end of the pipeline robust,” Miller said.
College readiness has been a hot button issue for the so-called next generation in Obama’s platform, calling for primary and secondary education programs to help better prepare students for competitive institutions like Cornell, according to Patricia Moore-Shaffer, vice president of research and development at the Educational Policy Institute.
Obama’s plan includes improvements in curriculums that would ensure students are prepared to enter higher education through tried-and-true initiatives like Upward Bound, a summer program for disadvantaged high-school students, Moore-Shaffer said.
There is a sense of a greater willingness to change due to the economic crisis, according to Jaschik.
“We’re here in Washington to make sure [Obama] makes good on his promise,” Miller said.