Inside Higher Ed: In running mate, hints of Romney's higher education policy

By Libby A. Nelson for Inside Higher Ed

August 13, 2012

With the selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made federal spending - including that on higher education - a major flash point of the coming presidential campaign.

Ryan, a Republican Representative from Wisconsin and chair of the House Budget Committee, is best known as the architect of a House of Representatives budget plan to slash discretionary spending - including cash for federal research, student loans and the Pell Grant programme - over the next decade. The latest version of that plan, which has been praised by many Republicans but panned by the Obama administration, would try to contain the cost of Pell Grants by changing eligibility criteria to exclude more students and by limiting the maximum award.

Barack Obama, who has campaigned for re-election in part on his proposals to make higher education more affordable, has already used Romney's support for Ryan's budget to attack the former Massachusetts governor. Romney's selection of Ryan means that debate is likely to continue - making the future of the Pell Grant, the bedrock financial aid programme for poor students, a point of major contention between the two parties in the remaining three months of the campaign.

Ryan himself (well before being considered as a vice-presidential candidate) has spoken out against more spending on student aid. In a video interview with Reason magazine, he said that Obama's spending on student aid imposed unreasonable costs on the public and represented "new unfunded liabilities".

Romney had spoken in the past of his support for Ryan's budget plan - at one point calling it "marvellous". But his selection of the Wisconsin Republican as a running mate indicates an endorsement of education cuts deeper than those Romney himself has proposed so far. In a recent appearance at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, one of Romney's education advisers said that the candidate would eliminate or consolidate several grant programmes and that he supported a return to bank-based student lending, which would actually cost the federal government more than the present system.

Up to now at least, Romney has deviated occasionally from the Ryan plan, even agreeing with Obama that interest rates on subsidised student loans should not rise to 6.8 per cent this year, as the plan prescribed. (Ryan, too, eventually went along with a bipartisan proposal to stop the interest rate from doubling.)

But the presumptive Republican nominee has not called for anything like Ryan's wholesale restructuring of federal financial aid programmes. In addition to tightening eligibility for the Pell Grant and setting a "sustainable" maximum for the programme, Ryan's proposal would undo the recent expansion of income-based repayment on student loans and would eliminate subsidised loans for undergraduates - transforming the federal financial aid schemes into a Pell Grant aimed at a smaller number of needy students and offering everyone else unsubsidised loans (which carry an interest rate of 6.8 per cent).

Ryan's budget proposal would also cut federal funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. And much of the nation's funding for scientific research, including the National Institutes of Health, would suffer cuts as part of broader reductions in discretionary spending. That and the proposed cuts to Medicaid and a transformation of Medicare into a voucher programme raised alarms at the Association of American Medical Colleges last spring.

Although Ryan's budget could have far-reaching consequences for higher education, and despite his taking part in plenty of votes affecting the sector his 14 years in Congress, he has rarely spoken about his views on colleges and universities.

From 1993 to 1995, before he entered Congress, Ryan worked as a speechwriter for William J. Bennett - who as US education secretary under Ronald Reagan frequently and publicly criticised colleges and universities. The representative now subscribes to Bennett's argument that federal financial aid leads to higher tuition costs.

Ryan has no administrative experience overseeing a state system of higher education (as Romney did in Massachusetts) and has never emphasised the role colleges play in society (as did Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, who spoke frequently of the value of scientific research, and Rick Santorum, who accused Obama of being a "snob" for encouraging college attendance). Ryan's district, a slice of southern Wisconsin, includes relatively few of the state's 85 higher education institutions, and Ryan rarely pursued federal earmarks for those institutions even before the House put a moratorium on the practice, which he opposed.

As for first-hand experience of academia, Ryan, who graduated from Miami University in Ohio, has spent less time on campus than anyone else in the presidential race: Obama and his vice-president, Joe Biden, both have law degrees; Romney has both a law degree and an MBA. An article in The Cincinnati Enquirer quoted some of Ryan's friends and former professors as saying that he was a serious undergraduate with a strong interest in economics.

Ryan does hold strong views on at least one legislative issue (other than the budget) with consequences for higher education: stem-cell research. He has voted several times to block federal funding for research involving embryonic stem cells.

In 2010, Ryan and other members of the Wisconsin Congressional delegation sent a letter to Arne Duncan, the education secretary, raising pointed questions about the "gainful employment" regulation, which ties for-profit colleges' eligibility for financial aid programmes to their students' ability to repay loans.

On Sunday, his first full day of campaigning for the nomination, Ryan joined Romney at rallies in North Carolina, including one at a for-profit college, the Nascar Technical Institute.

The Case Against College Entitlements with Rep. Paul Ryan and Author Charles Murray

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