Come next fall, the Democratic nominee for president will face an incumbent whose re-election pitch will surely include the boast that he signed into law one of the most significant federal laws aimed at improving elementary and secondary education in the nation’s history.
Faced with that prospect, the contenders for the Democratic nomination are augmenting their education platforms by hammering away at another plank: college affordability.
In doing so, they are returning to an issue that became a major piece of the domestic-policy agenda of the most recent Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton expanded tax credits, work- study opportunities, and federal financial-aid programs to help college-bound students.
The would-be 2004 challengers to President Bush have pointed to fast-rising college-tuition costs and reports that federal aid has failed to keep up with those expenses, and they argue that the policies of the Republican administration are at least partly to blame. They contend that the president— who touts the role of his signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, in raising expectations in K-12 schools—has failed to address the needs of low- and middle-income families in paying for college.
Almost all of the remaining eight Democratic presidential hopefuls—former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun dropped out of the race last week—have offered proposals promising to boost federal financial aid to students, provide more work-study options for them, and simplify the process of applying for federal grants and loans.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, for instance, has suggested making the first year at public universities and community colleges free of tuition, if students agree to follow a rigorous academic curriculum in high school and commit to working while in college.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark has suggested limiting federal Pell Grant awards to the first two years of college and eliminating President Clinton’s Hope tax-credit programs in order to create a more unified, simplified financial-aid mechanism. Called a “Universal College Grant,” it would be worth up to $6,000 a year.
“We are seeing virtually unprecedented tuition increases, and it is squeezing middle- class families across the country,” said Jason Furman, the policy director for Mr. Clark’s campaign. “We think President Bush is very vulnerable on higher education.”
Meanwhile, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean proposes that students not be required to devote more than a specified percentage of their post- graduation income to college-loan repayments if they enter such high-need fields as teaching and nursing.
Some Democrats have questioned the political wisdom of criticizing President Bush on the No Child Left Behind law, which they note may prove popular among the public despite growing Democratic attacks (“‘No Child’ Law Faulted in Democratic Race,” Jan. 14, 2004.)
Andrew Rotherham, a former domestic- policy aide to Mr. Clinton, said Democrats were, by contrast, more in agreement about pointing out Republican shortcomings on college access and affordability.
“It’s no great secret there’s [a] divide within the [Democratic] party over elementary and secondary policy,” Mr. Rotherham said in an interview last month. “There’s a lot more unity among all Democrats on some higher ed issues, which makes it a terrific issue to push. ... It’ll get a lot of traction in the general election.”
Costs and Blame
In campaign materials, some Democratic candidates have suggested that President Bush’s economic policies—in particular, his support for tax cuts—have hurt state governments, and by extension, public colleges.
“President Bush’s tax giveaways for the wealthy have contributed to the crisis facing America’s states,” Mr. Clark says on his campaign Web site. “The states have tried to balance their budgets, in turn, with rapid increases in tuition and fees.”
But Republicans scoff at any such link. They point to administration- backed increases in overall spending for postsecondary education, as well as for specific financial-aid programs such as Pell Grants for needy students, as evidence of the president’s strong record on higher education.
In addition, Mr. Bush’s tax cuts represented “money that American families have been able to put back into savings for everything from college tuition to crayons and clothes for school,” said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Ms. Iverson noted that spending for Pell Grants would increase to $12.1 billion in the fiscal 2004 Department of Education budget awaiting final passage by Congress. President Bush had proposed funding that program at an even higher level, $12.7 billion.
The maximum Pell Grant award would remain stagnant under the pending 2004 budget, however, at $4,050, an amount that critics, including many Democrats, say fails to keep pace with rising college costs. But Ms. Iverson noted that roughly 1 million more students are receiving the awards today than when President Bush took office three years ago.
Tuition and fees at public four-year colleges climbed by an average of 10 percent from 2001-02 to 2002-03, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Yet average state support for higher education rose by only 1.2 percent over that time—the smallest increase in a decade—and it declined in 14 states, the San Jose, Calif., center found.
“College education is becoming more and more expensive for the average American,” said Travis J. Reindl, the state policy director for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, “making it even more of a kitchen-table issue than it has been in the past” (“Barriers to College: Lack of Preparation Vs. Financial Need,” this issue.)
Some Republicans suggest that for the Democrats, college access is one of the only politically viable education issues left. Those GOP stalwarts predict that while the presidential candidates’ criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act may appeal to teachers’ unions and other core Democratic constituencies during the primary season, that stance will hold little appeal for moderates and swing voters in the general election.
Centrist voters will instead be drawn to President Bush as the candidate who took steps to improve K-12 schools, Republicans maintain.
“The Democrats are looking to reclaim the ground they’ve lost to the president and Republicans in Congress on education,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Republicans on the House education committee. “We don’t think they’ll be successful.”
Mr. Bush, meanwhile, still has time to present new higher education initiatives to the public, Mr. Reindl of AASCU said. He suggested the Bush administration could end up proposing an incentive program to encourage students to graduate from college on time and require institutions to help them do so.
Many of the Democrats’ campaign themes echo those of former President Clinton, who championed several college- affordability measures during his eight years in the White House. Those included the creation of AmeriCorps, which offers students college aid in return for community service; the Hope and Lifetime Learning income-tax credits; and support for the direct-loan program, which allows students to borrow directly from the federal government through their colleges or universities, without dealing with lending institutions.
David A. Longanecker, who was the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education during the Clinton administration, said he hoped Democrats focus their campaign ideas on college access for low-income students—rather than simply middle-class families. Some critics accused Mr. Clinton of promoting college affordability initiatives with a middle-class bent.
Yet he believes the Democrats face a stiff challenge in trying to convince voters that President Bush has failed to take steps on college affordability. Republicans could portray state governments, rather than federal policymakers, as responsible for failing to support colleges and control tuition, he said.
“It’s going to be hard to pin it on” the president, said Mr. Longanecker, who is now the executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, in Boulder, Colo. “Everybody throws darts at the board on this one, but there’s no clear sense of whose face is on it.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Democrats Tout Their Plans For Higher Education