How might the new president's policies affect higher education?
The inauguration of Barack Obama as president on Jan. 20 is an historic occasion in many ways. Director of Federal Relations Christina West, who is based in Vanderbilt’s Washington, D.C., office, reflects on how the new administration may affect higher education and Vanderbilt.
commentary by Christina West
photo by Daniel Dubois
Facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, President-elect Barack Obama has promised quick action to try to bring the United States – and the world – economy out of the recession. Every other priority pales in comparison and must be examined through the prism of a severe economic recession. It is clear that many of the campaign promises Obama made over the past two years will have to be re-evaluated. The reality is that issues confronting college-age students and the institutions they attend likely won’t be a top priority for the incoming administration.
Obama’s choice of Chicago Public Schools chief executive Arne Duncan as his secretary of education seems to indicate that his education focus will be on K-12 and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law rather than higher education policy issues.
Stimulating the Economy
The single biggest impact on Vanderbilt this year is likely to be the economy and how the new administration seeks to address the economic challenges we face. With the recession comes belt tightening, not only within families, businesses and universities, but also by the federal government. As U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper has been warning for years, the United States faces a dim fiscal outlook. With debt and deficits mounting, the quest for new funding for research and federal student aid will become even more daunting than in years past.
It is virtually certain that another, significantly larger economic stimulus package will arrive on the new president’s desk as soon as he is sworn in. Such a stimulus may include public funding for school infrastructure projects, including university construction projects.
Others have argued that a more pressing priority for higher education in a stimulus package is helping needy students afford college. Legislative action may include increasing federal loan limits and Pell grants and providing federal backing to private loans.
Still others are seeking one-time additional research funding in a stimulus. Such resources would help fund grants that have been cut, qualified proposals that have been denied, and restore user capacity at national labs. However, in the atmosphere of “quick fixes,” research funding may be a difficult cause for lawmakers to support.
Last Year’s Leftovers
One of the new president’s first tasks will be to conclude the 2009 fiscal year appropriations process. Three months into the new fiscal year, all but three federal agencies are operating on a “continuing resolution” at last year’s funding levels. Congress hopes to have the remaining appropriations bills on the new president’s desk soon after he takes office. Vanderbilt has been working diligently to ensure that proposed increases for federal research budgets are part of the final appropriations bill.
Less than a month after taking office, President Obama will be expected to present to Congress his proposed budget for the 2010 fiscal year, kicking off the next budget and appropriations cycle even before the ink is dry on the 2009 process.
Vanderbilt’s priorities in this budget will be, once again, on securing significant increases in federal research budgets – including those at the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the departments of defense, education and energy. As a candidate, Obama called for a doubling of federal spending for basic research over the next decade, but the new economic reality may make this a campaign promise virtually impossible to fulfill – at least initially.
Policy that doesn’t require an outlay of federal funds will be more likely to see presidential action earlier in the new administration. This might include lifting a ban on new human embryonic stem cell lines; elevating the status of the president’s science adviser to a cabinet-level position; and restoring scientific integrity in the federal regulatory process.
Not only has President-elect Obama called for a reversal of the current stem cell policy, but congressional Democrats have identified it – as well as a children’s health care measure – as early priorities for 2009. Both are of interest to Vanderbilt researchers and medical practitioners.
Despite the bleak economic forecast, it appears that President-elect Obama understands the importance of increasing investments in basic research. During a speech in Michigan, then-Sen. Obama observed, “We can’t just focus on preserving existing industries. We have to be in the business of encouraging new ones – and that means science, research and technology. For two centuries, America led the world in innovation. … I’ll double federal funding for basic research and make the R & D tax credit permanent. We can ensure that the discoveries of the 21st century happen in America – in our labs and universities.”
Obama has repeatedly made the link between investments in science and technology and the success of our economy. As Inside Higher Education reported, “Obama has called for expanded financing of federal research programs, with special efforts for those academic scientists starting their careers; the creation of new programs to improve math and science education and to attract more students to them, with special efforts to recruit minority and female students to fields where they have been underrepresented; and special efforts to promote research and education related to climate change and health care.”
Making College Affordable and Accessible
The chorus of calls for increasing access to higher education while simultaneously holding institutions accountable for their costs has only grown louder as the economy has deteriorated. On the campaign trail, Obama’s higher education platform also centered on initiatives aimed at making college more affordable and accessible. Perhaps one of his most commonly cited campaign pledges was a $4,000 tuition tax credit to students who complete 100 hours of public service. While appealing to many, the price tag for the tax credit may relegate it to the back burner for the foreseeable future.
Among his other proposals were eliminating subsidies for lenders of federal loans, simplification of the federal aid application, increases in the Pell Grant equal to or above inflation, and lifting the ban on campus-based ROTC programs.
Where Does This Leave Us?
As one of this nation’s leading research institutions, Vanderbilt has a significant stake in holding Obama to his campaign promises to increase federal investments in research. However, Vanderbilt will no doubt be forced to defend its piece of the discretionary budget. The higher education community will have to justify the need for increased research budgets even more forcefully, while simultaneously ensuring that students can afford to attend the institution of their choice.