Monday, November 10, 2008

Students, Key to Obama's Win, May Not Be First on His Agenda

Monday, November 10, 2008


College students are taking a lot of the credit for helping to elect Barack Obama as president. They're being warned by their political advocates, however, not to expect immediate action on their agenda.

Leaders of several student-advocacy groups, outlining their expectations for the Obama administration and Democrat-dominated Congress, said on Friday that they don't expect quick action on any higher-education issues, including President-elect Barack Obama's oft-repeated campaign pledge to enact a $4,000 tuition tax credit.

"Do I think it's doable? Absolutely," said Erica L. Williams, policy and advocacy manager at Campus Progress Action, a Washington-based advocacy group. "I think the question is the timing of it. How soon can that happen, given the priorities of the administration?"

The student-advocacy leaders helped coordinate a record turnout of some 24 million voters under the age of 30 for Tuesday's elections, with their support running 2-to-1 in favor of Mr. Obama (The Chronicle, November 6). Yet the leaders are now calling for patience, saying they recognize the new president will take office at a time of tough economic conditions with many competing priorities. The advocates spoke in a conference call on Friday just hours after the Labor Department announced that the unemployment rate had shot up to 6.5 percent, with 240,000 jobs lost in October alone, as clear a sign as any that the country is now in recession.

"We are hoping to definitely see it within the first few months, but that may or may not be a realistic expectation," Ms. Williams said of the tax break. "The good news, however, about young voters is that they are well aware of the time frame in which we're working."

Stimulating the Campus Economy

The first post-election action by Congress to help higher education might turn out to be funds for public colleges, as part of efforts to help states cope with tighter budgets, said Robert M. Brandon, coordinator of the Campaign for College Affordability, a coalition of advocacy groups.

Such funds for states, possibly in the form of money to help rebuild elementary and secondary schools, could be included in an economic-stimulus package that Congress passes either before Mr. Obama takes office or shortly afterward, Mr. Brandon said.

The Obama administration and Congress "are going to be looking at ways to stimulate the economy, so they're going to be spending money" after January 20, he said. "That's clear." The main question is whether the advocates can convince lawmakers and the administration that devoting more funds to higher education fits into "the priorities of putting money into the economy," he said.

The House of Representatives, as part of an economic-stimulus plan it approved earlier this year, proposed spending money to repair public elementary and secondary schools. That bill did not pass the Senate. A new attempt could expand the idea to finance repairs at public colleges, said Jennifer T. Poulakidas, vice president for Congressional and governmental affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

But others weren't sure such repairs should be the new administration's highest priority for higher education. For needy students struggling to afford college, federal money for campus-infrastructure projects might not be as beneficial as increasing grant aid, said Edward M. Elmendorf, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

But, Ms. Poulakidas said, federal spending on infrastructure could be attractive as a jobs-producing initiative that has the added benefit of improving public education.

Continuing Resolve

Either way, students recognize that their days of political organizing did not end with Mr. Obama's victory, said Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote, which promotes voter participation among young Americans.

Rock the Vote moved its headquarters to Washington from Los Angeles primarily to play a greater role in the debates on Capitol Hill and inside the White House, Ms. Smith said on the conference call.

One of Mr. Obama's campaign promises was to establish the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which would provide $4,000 a year to college students who complete 100 hours of public service during the academic year.

The amount would be an improvement for students over existing programs, including the Hope credit, which is worth up to $1,650 for the first two years of college, and the Lifetime Learning credit, which is worth up to $2,000 a year. Both would be replaced by the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

"We are going to hold people accountable—our lawmakers who ran on these platforms and on these positions," said Shilpa Reddy, a lobbyist with the National Education Association and its "Got Tuition?" campaign, which organized the conference call.

"This is an ongoing process. This was the first step," Ms. Reddy said of the election of Mr. Obama and a larger Democratic majority in Congress. "They'll get our support, but we'll also make sure that their feet are going to be held to the fire."

Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

No comments: