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Obama and Higher Education - Romance and Reality

We are delighted to offer a very thoughtful HigherEd Careers chat this month with David King. Dr. King has been a faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government since 1992 and is the faculty director for its Newly Elected Members of the U.S. Congress program. We had the pleasure of chatting with him about the Obama Administration and Higher Education. His thoughts are very practical insights into what we might expect from our federal government over the next four to eight years and its impact on our colleges and universities. We think it will help you appreciate the career path you have chosen. After reading, we invite you to continue the discussion in our LinkedIn group or follow HigherEd Careers on Twitter. -- Andrew Hibel

Andrew Hibel, I sometimes fear that the words "Change and Hope" have been used so often over the past year that they are losing the power of their meanings. How do you think federal government will "Change" higher education over the next four to eight years and how will "Hope" look to those who benefit from a college degree?

David C. King, Harvard Kennedy School of Government: The Department of Education (DOE) will focus on community colleges and the funding of programs for non-traditional students. The "Change" in policy terms is a shift away from supporting and subsidizing the costs of college for children from upper-middle and upper-class homes. The U.S. economy needs to retrain middle-age workers. That doesn't often happen in traditional colleges and universities.

Hibel: Has the grassroots student support for candidate Obama created a desire for him to support higher education initiatives that help students?

King: Students played the decisive role in get-out-the-vote efforts. Student participation in the 2008 election was higher than any presidential election since 1972 - when the right to vote was extended to 18-year-olds. But students did not list education as their top priority. Their concerns were the war and the economy, followed by social service issues. Education matters, of course, but it did not drive turnout for young people.

Hibel: The two main higher education campaign promises that candidate Obama made were a $4,000 tax credit for 100 hours of community service ($40 per hour), and to simplify financial aid by using a check box in tax forms. 1 In what ways are these ideas practical and in what ways are they empty promises?

King: They're both practical and could be implemented fairly easily. The community service requirements would presumably have to be run through an extension of AmeriCorps, or else it'd be an invitation to commit tax fraud. Regardless, the Congress will be closely involved in both policy choices: the Ways and Means committee in the House, and the Finance committee in the Senate. They'll be the main players because this affects tax policy, but neither committee has a deep bench of lawmakers who have taken a long-term interest in education policy. So, yes it is possible, but politics may make it more difficult than one would first imagine.

Hibel: In advocating for the American Recovery and Reinvestment ("Stimulus") Plan in January, President-Elect Obama stated that "Our universities are still the envy of the world," and ". . .we will equip tens of thousands of schools, community colleges, and public universities with 21st century classrooms . . . We'll provide new computers, new technology, and new training for teachers." 2 From a political perspective, how can the administration sell the idea that our academe is the envy of the world and at the same time, we need new infrastructure to stay that way?

King: I do not know how this is sold politically, but data on the quality of our universities shows the United States plainly out front. But there is no question, either, that our worldwide lead has slipped dramatically over the past thirty years. Virtually every major industrial country has colleges that are as good as most of our colleges and universities. We are perhaps less than a dozen years from having all but our most elite universities eclipsed by universities in Europe and Asia. Our technical colleges and community colleges lag further behind. We need investments not only in infrastructures, but in how we teach, how we promote faculty, and how we place students in co-op jobs.

Hibel: In academia, the "stimulus" began discussion about how the expansion of the Pell Grant was preferable to tax credits for low income students. 3 Could you explain how this conclusion is reached?

King: Pell Grants go right to the students to use, so they show up with money in hand. Tax credits come after the fact - after a student has found the funds to make it through the first semester or the first year. And many students do not make enough money to have to file Federal taxes. So Pell Grants are much better all around.

Hibel: While speaking about his budget in March, President Obama spoke broadly about higher, and lifelong, education. 4 He covered many of the campaign and transition topics, but also seemed to add an issue of the college graduation rates. Tell us more about how you have seen this administration already go from "change, reform and hope" to "accountability and transparency." How do you think the public is going to take to this different perspective from President Obama?

King: Well, change, reform, and hope were campaign themes. They're not blueprints for governing, and the Obama administration would be naïve to try. Accountability seems to have been lacking at the Federal level, though, and it is not clear how that will change. Federal employees are protected by law from most lawsuits, and they tend to have great job security. Transparency, instead, will drive new forms of accountability. The new administration's use of the Internet to solicit reactions and to explain policies has never been tried before. More citizens are engaged than ever before, so with eyes watching more and more of the action, that should boost efforts to hold federal employees accountable.

Hibel: How would you describe the personality of this Congress and its perspective on higher education?

King: We need to remember that the Federal Department of Education is one of the smallest cabinet-level departments, with about 5,000 employees. So the Federal government isn't in the business of handing out money or overseeing curricula. The DOE is a regulatory body focused on national standards. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of House and Senate members came from local elected office - often including school boards. They understand how and where the rubber meets the road. The federal government has surprisingly little power and authority over education, but members of Congress take a keen interest in education. Leadership tends to come not from the White House, but from the Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee.

Hibel: How much of an effect do you think President Obama will have during his first two years in office shaping the bills that will come from this Congress?

King: He will have a huge effect because we have a united government, with the executive and legislative branches both controlled by the same party. He has high approval ratings. And he has decided to throw a "Hail Mary" pass in the budget process this year. President Obama will try to use a technical provision called a reconciliation bill, to circumvent the regular committee process and to usher in major policy changes. This will either succeed or fail by late summer. If the Senate goes along with this parliamentary trick, we will see sudden and significant policy changes. If not, President Obama may have to wait to see the results of the 2010 congressional elections. If his Senate majority grows, then the president will be especially effective in Congress.

Hibel: The Stimulus Package seemed very much to be a compromise among Democrats and three Republicans. The differences between the Senate Bill, House Bill and Conference Report in regards to higher education demonstrated the compromise. 5 What do you think these results indicate for the future higher education related bills?

King: The stimulus bill was a special case, because it was clear that we were going to spend a lot of money, so every agency and interest group had a stake in hooking onto that train. That was a train that had to reach the station, even loaded with boxcars. But now, in terms of money, education policy will be a caboose, well behind energy, the environment, healthcare, and military readiness. The big money (remember, we're facing a $1.2 trillion federal deficit in fiscal year 2010) will be spent long before the caboose rolls by. Instead - beyond financial aid assistance and loan forgiveness programs -- education policy will continue to focus on testing and mandates. Policymaking will continue to be off-loaded to the state and local levels. If you're looking for innovation and change in higher education , take a train to your state capitol building. Avoid that flight to DC.

Hibel: Your book, Turf Wars , describes the jurisdictional battles between Congressional Committees. 6 Two of the concepts in the book seemed like they might have an impact on higher education. Please tell us more about the concept that richer committees get richer 7 and that there are true believers who participate on education related committees. 8

King: In education policy, the "rich" committees that have been expanding turf are the House and Senate tax committees and some of the issue-specific committees, such as Science. The House Education committee is deeply divided along ideological grounds and has trouble getting anything done. The Senate "HELP" committee is far more functional. Funding, as always, will come through the House and Senate subcommittees.

Hibel: What sort of impact will these "turf wars" have on committee placement and ultimately the outcomes of the initiatives that President Obama wants to enact?

King: This is an especially interesting problem for Congress, because the House and Senate education committees exhausted themselves last year when they reauthorized the Higher Ed Act. That reauthorization took several years to complete, and it's hard for people who aren't on the Hill to understand just how draining that reauthorization was. Compare it to running a marathon on one day and then unexpectedly being asked to run a 100-mile race the next. The Senate might be able to pull it off, but not the House. So for this Congress, I'm expecting the center of power to shift to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education. The chair there is Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), but on education policy the main player is Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). Kennedy's uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) chairs the Senate HELP committee - so they'll coordinate policy as long as Senator Kennedy's health holds up. This, though, cuts the House Education committee out of the picture.

Hibel: Can the Republicans in this Congress kill President Obama's educational policies like the Republicans who halted educational plans of President Kennedy? 9

King: Now, on partisanship, the problem will come down to the Senate's ability to stop filibusters. That takes 60 votes, but the Democrats don't have 60 Senators. Three swing senators (Olympia Snowe from Maine, Susan Collins from Maine, and Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania) have a lot to say on all of these social policies.

Hibel: In light of the recent populist rage towards financial institutions, how likely is this political environment to enact legislation that requires a standardized truth-in-lending (or maybe a truth-in-purchase) type regulation for all college enrollments?

King: Very, very unlikely. Universities will fight this hard, because costs are so variable from school to school. Universities will argue that costs cannot be compared - and that they're already incentivized through competition to keep costs in line and to be as revealing to their students (read: future alumni) as possible. Universities expend a lot of energy in creating happy alumni. Sometimes I think we're really in the business of shaping happy alumni who'll remain loyal to the university. It's that kind of competition - first for students, and then for happy alumni - that already do what "truth in lending" kinds of laws would do. I don't know whether I believe that, but it's the argument that'll be made. University administrators would throw a fit over this kind of policy proposal.

Hibel: It appears to be flattering to have President Obama listing education as a priority along with health care and energy. With this interest from our President, what kind of security should the academic professionals and faculty feel about their industry?

King: Faculty should expect less and less security. Major universities have been shifting away from tenured faculty toward lecturers - and that may well be a good trend. Lecturers tend to be closer to the "real world," which comes along with more practical skills. Likewise, growth in higher education will be greater in community and technical colleges. Job security there is directly related to performance - not tenure. We may, thankfully, be moving toward more accountability for teachers and less security for the dead wood among our faculties.

Hibel: What do you think the potential legislation over the next four to eight years does for careers in the academe?

King: I don't expect direct subsidies for education will matter generally - especially in the humanities. Investments in science, technology, and health care will boost large research universities that depend on grants. The next 8 years will be good to scientists at MIT, Cal Tech, and Johns Hopkins, among others. Better to be a "real" scientist than a "social" scientist.

Hibel: You have been with one of our oldest and most respected universities, Harvard, since 1992. What do you think the effects of these changes will mean for your institution?

King: I don't expect much of an impact from federal policy here. Harvard already does well on Federal grants, so that won't change. Our current "crisis" revolves around our endowment. Yes, it's still larger than for any other university in the world - but Harvard has become over-reliant on the endowment to fund a massive building project. For now, most of that is on hold. When (if) the economy recovers, the endowment will rise again, and Harvard can expand.

Hibel: As a higher education professional, what differences are you seeing in recruitment of faculty and staff?

King: At Harvard, we're seeing fewer hires because of the economy, but when we do make hires, we're looking for cross-disciplinary scholars. That certainly was not the case in the early 1990s. If we can find a brain scientist, for example, who also does research on economic decision making , she'd have a much better chance of landing a job than someone who comes right out of a traditional disciplinary base. This hiring approach makes it more difficult for some of our junior scholars to get tenure, because those evaluations are usually done along disciplinary lines. But we do not hire with the expectation that junior faculty will get tenure anyway - so we have the relative freedom to look for multi-disciplinary scholars.

Hibel: What are you telling your students and colleagues who may be looking for employment today?

King: I don't give advice to colleagues, but for my students I ask them to write skill-based resumes. Their job histories should be downplayed and woven into the skills they can bring to employers. Many of my students end up on Capitol Hill, and I always want them minimizing their Harvard roots. Bury Harvard at the bottom of their resume, I tell them, or else they'll come off as pretentious. Then I advise them to work our alumni network like crazy. Knock on doors just as a candidate for higher office would. Send thank-you notes. Understand that you're in sales, and the product is you.

Hibel: What is your best advice to a higher education professional looking to further his or her career today?

King: For administrators, I don't have a clue. They make our universities run, but I have no idea whether they're doing a good job or not, because I'm not in a position to judge. For other professors, I've seen a lot of my colleagues come and go from here. Those who have been successful (either at Harvard or at their next jobs) understand that their learning only begins when they get a Ph.D. Some of my friends from graduate school thought they had reached some "finish line" when they got their doctorates. That's crazy. That's the starting line. Scholars who have successful careers diversify their skills and interests. They keep up with journals while also trying to become more "public intellectuals." I think of it this way: even though we're not in a Ph.D. program any longer, we should imagine ourselves getting a new Ph.D. every six years. We're not just in the "teaching business," we're in the "learning business." As the world changes, we need to, too.

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