Obama's inaugural address focused his policy initiatives on issues like climate change and immigration reform; however, the overriding theme of his speech centered on equality in American society. According to the Brookings Institute, one of the main avenues for social mobility and overcoming disadvantage is increasing possibilities for higher education. Tweet at Brookings: Tweet
In fact, previous Economic Mobility Project findings at the Brookings Institute show that “adult children from poor and low-income families who earn a college degree are much more likely to move up the income ladder past peers in their own generation than are those without a degree.” Considering the rising cost of college in today’s poor economic climate, these statistics are alarming and threaten Obama’s agenda for equality.
During Obama’s first term, he rarely addressed the gaps between the cost, ability to access higher education, and possibilities for social mobility through college degrees. His only initiatives focused on a dual process of increasing Pell Grant funds, access to which is limited to students with financial need and are not repaid to the U.S. government, and to make student loans more affordable. Overall, Obama’s agenda did not focus on bold new ideas in the field of higher education.
Unfortunately, even these programs appear to be in jeopardy. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pell Grants exist as the cornerstone of economic opportunity, but are paired with insecurity in the financial system. As early as next year, the program is projected to have a yearly budget deficit of $5.8 million. Tweet at the Chronicle: Tweet
Obama’s policy of making students loans more affordable has also hit some road bumps. While his administration instituted an important change where the federal government extends low interest rates to students who are struggling financially after college, when loans are due, only a small fraction of borrowers are enrolled in this benefit program. This makes its impact negligible at best.
In addition, the rules for loan assistance tend to favor high-income borrowers with large loans, most particularly those who go to law school. These policies have resulted in an important change in policy, but not necessarily in practice of how students are able to access and pay off loans to enroll in higher education programs.
How Obama will address these issues in the second term remains uncertain. Inside Higher Education reports that Obama’s November victory ensures that the White House will continue to push federal aid programs, as well as federal research money. Tweet report: Tweet
However, in the fierce budget battles that are continually being waged in Washington, these federal dollars are more than likely going to be limited. Obama is projected to place his priorities in halting the deep spending cuts to public universities rather than finding new money for higher education programs.
While access to higher education played very little, if any, role in the 2012 presidential campaign, this issue possesses a prominent place in the livelihoods of every day Americans. The Obama administration recognizes how important it is, both in regard to the U.S. falling to ninth internationally in the proportion of young adults enrolling in college and in the widening attainment gap. His website places affordability and international competitiveness at the top of a second term agenda. Tweet stat: Tweet
With Arne Duncan poised to stay on as Secretary of Education for the second term and no new policy initiatives announced, it remains undetermined how the U.S. will address these shortcomings. Exactly what Duncan and Obama do to address these issues will certainly help determine Obama’s legacy as an innovative education president and the direction of high ed for years to come.