Making promises that only others can keep

October 27, 2000

Is US higher education heading for a lesson in the emptiness of campaign pledges? asks Martin Trow

One important fact about the United States presidential campaign is that both candidates - and the parties behind them - agree that more can and should be done to encourage college-going among a wide cross-section of the population.

Even after discounting the campaign rhetoric and the separation of powers in the American constitution, it is still significant that both candidates speak warmly of further investment in higher education, from research to lifelong learning.

Debates between the two parties centre more on primary and secondary education, since there are differences between the parties in their commitment to the public school system, reflecting the Democrats' links to the big teachers' unions versus the Republicans' support for broader choice and vouchers to strengthen individual choice, even at the expense of the public school system.

When it comes to higher education both parties and candidates are committed to supporting students, their families or employers directly.

Vice-President Al Gore plans to make college more affordable by making tax-deductible $10,000 of fees for post-secondary education and training. In addition, he would help workers save for life-long learning by creating special individual accounts so that employers and employees can save together, tax free. Both of these plans model themselves on the existing individual retirement accounts that grow with contributions from worker and employer.

Governor George W Bush plans to increase the existing federal programme of means-tested Pell grants from $3,300 to $5,100 for first-year college students, a figure that would then increase with time in college. He would also expand the existing Education Savings Accounts by increasing an individual or family's annual contribution limit from $500 to $5,000 per child. Tax-free withdrawals could pay for expenses from kindergarten to college and beyond.

But little is being said about "quality" in higher education, due to the long-standing principle that the institutions, not government, govern "quality". The belief in the US on quality is that something is better than nothing, and that quality can improve over time. The trick is to get the expansion and then worry about quality.

The sums the parties are speaking of making available for higher education are similar and high. The differences are technical and administrative, and centre on such questions as whether to make the money available through bigger grants, through encouragement to students to take loans, through bigger tax breaks for families for money spent on their children's education - or all of the above.

The parties agree that the big additional investments in higher education will go to students to take where they will or can, and not directly to the institutions.

Something will surely be done in the new Congress because education is hugely popular with the electorate and consensual, in principle, between the candidates.

But what the candidates are saying in their campaigns is not particularly instructive. It is unlikely that what they promise will pass the Congress. British observers, even sophisticated ones, still believe that a party that wins a general election can deliver on its promises. But American presidents do not control the Congress, and whoever wins on November 7 will have to get legislation through a Congress with its own mind and committees, and maybe even controlled by the other party. What will pass will surely be different from what either candidate now promises.

The real nature of the federal role in higher education after the election will become clearer when the new administration names its secretary of education, taken against the issue of who controls each house, and who the leaders of the relevant committees are. The new education secretary's comments on what his or her administration wants to accomplish, among the various promises made during the campaign, will be revealing. How much of this it will be possible to deliver is another matter.

But developments in the realm of higher education at state level are just as - if not more - significant than events in the White House and on Capitol Hill. In California, the state governor and legislature are far more important to the University of California than is the government in Washington. The states have large taxing powers, do not maintain armed forces, run big uncapped budgets and constitutionally own education. This needs to be stressed since it is at variance with the assumption in Britain that the US and British systems are really alike and have a similar relation to government.

Martin Trow is professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley.

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