InsideHigherEd: Politicans Praise/Warn Higher Ed Industry

Good piece looking at higher ed industry in the context of current economic turmoil/stimulus plan and longer term economic and social trends. Highlights speeches by Arne Duncan and Lamar Alexander at the ACE meetings in Washington. Here are two longish snippets:

Duncan, who is new both to higher education and to Washington, was full of praise for colleges in his speech, which was televised by C-Span. He acknowledged that there were problems — low graduation rates, prices rising out of reach of many Americans, too many inadequate teachers being turned out by colleges of education — but he raised those issues in the context of ensuring that the country continues to have “the greatest higher education system in the world.”

And to the delight of the audience, he not only applauded the fact that the economic stimulus bill “includes a historic level of one-time education funding” that could double the budget of the Education Department for the next two years, but strongly suggested, in the speech and in comments to reporters afterwards, that the Obama administration would push to restore proposed spending on higher education that was cut from the version of the package that the Senate endorsed Monday. News reports had indicated that White House officials were heavily involved in the deliberations in which a group of Senate moderates crafted a proposal to cut more than $100 billion from the chamber’s stimulus bill, leaving the impression that the the Obama administration might line up behind the Senate bill.

But in his comments Monday, Duncan noted that the Senate had included “only half of what the House approved” ($39 billion vs. $79 billion) in terms of the “stabilization fund” designed to help states plug major holes in their education budgets. The Senate version, he said, contains “not nearly as much as we need,” and during the process in which Congress reconciles differences between the two bills, he said, “we need to push for every dollar we can get because public universities and community colleges desperately need that money to avert cuts.” He added: “This is not just good education policy. It’s good economic policy.”

And here is some more:

In his own talk, Alexander made it clear that he is not at all confident that the stimulus bill will be good for higher education, or for the country. Doubling the budget for the Education Department “without any discussion at all … about whether we should innovate” could actually deter colleges from the kind of innovation that the Republican senator said he believes is necessary if higher education is to avoid the fate that befell America’s automobile industry. (Alexander said he had just been reading David Halberstam’s The Reckoning, from 1986.)

That industry, Alexander said, ignored the warning from the former Michigan governor George Romney that “there is nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success,” and higher education, long the envy of the world, risks losing its place if colleges do not find ways to lower what they charge students without impairing their quality.

Alexander is an adept politician, a trait he made clear that he learned — or at least sharpened — while he was president of the University of Tennessee. He won over the audience at the start of his speech with one of his favorite props: the five-foot-tall stack of boxes that, he said, contain the flood of federal regulations that govern colleges. Despite his best efforts, Alexander said, the Higher Education Act renewal that Congress passed last year will double that stack. While college leaders may be concerned about finances now, Alexander said, overregulation is really the “biggest threat” to a higher education system that is “one thing in our country that works and works well — our secret weapon” in the international race for economic superiority.

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