From the Goucher Quarterly, Winter 2006

Decades ago, one of the hot topics for high school debate was “Federal Aid to Education.” Would it be good or bad? Would it help make access to a quality education a national priority, cutting across socioeconomic, racial, and regional lines, or would it lead to mischievous intervention in the classroom and the unwelcome assertion of control by an expansionist federal bureaucracy?

Remember, if you can, that the U.S. Department of Education did not even exist until 1979; any federal attention to the issue came through the massive old cabinet-level Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. And so, debating tactics aside, the real-life answer seemed obvious: Of course it would be important and valuable to introduce clear national standards into the crazy patchwork of state systems of education.

Who would have thought, then, that in the early years of the 21st century we might be saying, at least from the perspective of higher education, “Be careful what you wish for”?

While public attention has, understandably, been focused elsewhere in recent months - on wars and hurricanes and Supreme Court nominees - the higher education community has been in a sustained state of crisis because of the acrimonious debate surrounding the pending (and much delayed) reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the federal law that has, since 1965, served as the framework for institutional and student aid.

The overall tone of the conversation has implied that colleges and universities have been bad citizens and must be brought under greater control. Indeed, at one point it seemed as if a number of key Republican congressmen, despite their professed belief in a free and open economy, were ready to legislate federal cost controls over college tuition. At this writing, the House version of the legislation still establishes a “College Affordability Index” and penalizes any institution that increases its tuition by more than twice the rate of inflation over a three-year period. Those that don’t get the message could be placed on an “Affordability Alert Status” and audited by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education.

Here are some of the other proposals that have emerged at various times in the discussion about reauthorizing the HEA, many still in one or another version of the bill:

  • Establishing federal standards for transfer of credits from one institution to another. Pushed by for-profit, private-sector institutions, some of which are little more than diploma mills, this could prohibit colleges from evaluating the worth of a transfer student’s earlier courses if they were taken at an unaccredited college or university.
  • Permitting states to take over accreditation from the private associations that now perform the function. One potentially mischievous clause would require that accreditors have standards that consider an institution’s mission, including the “inculcation of religious values.”
  • Setting up an “International Education Advisory Board” that would, in effect, screen the internationally oriented aspects of the curriculum of any institution receiving federal grants, to make sure they are not “anti-American.”
  • Imposing as many as 30 new federal reporting requirements on colleges and universities. These would include everything from the number of false alarms in dormitories each year to graduation rates broken down into minute sub-categories of students.
  • Adopting a controversial “Academic Bill of Rights,” promoted by conservative activists and already in effect in some states. Although initially non-binding, it would enforce political notions of “intellectual pluralism,” leading to the potential labeling of every campus speaker in order to fulfill a bureaucrat’s vision of “balance.”

The list goes on. Also included in the legislation is a restructuring of student financial aid programs that tends to favor newer and growing community colleges over long-established four-year public and private institutions, including historically black ones. It is also likely that federal direct-lending programs will be cut back in favor of guaranteed loan programs that provide banks and other lenders with substantial fees. And most worrisome of all is the fact that some congressional budget-cutters, looking for extra money to pay for hurricane relief and the war in Iraq without raising taxes, have targeted student loan programs for at least $14.3 billion in cuts.

It is important to acknowledge that there are serious issues in American higher education that urgently need attention. Tuition and other costs often seem to be spiraling out of control, and this may well constrain access and affordability in spite of generous financial aid programs. An intellectual community does need to be refreshed and stimulated by hearing a wide spectrum of voices and views. Student mobility should be encouraged and enhanced with fair opportunities to change institutions when necessary or appropriate.

But the solution to every problem in this sector, like any other, cannot always be found through clumsy and often impulsive federal intervention. In tense and troubled times, however, colleges and universities make easy targets for angry legislators and frustrated families. The worst possible response to these pressures would be frightened efforts to calm the waters. We must have the courage to identify our weaknesses and improve upon them, but also to defend and build upon what we are doing well.