Martha J. Kanter was once President Barack Obama’s lead on higher education; now she leads a free college movement and is contemplating Donald Trump and the Republicans rolling back Obama reforms in the sector.
Dr Kanter, previously chancellor of Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California, was chosen as under secretary in the Department of Education by Mr Obama in 2009.
She was responsible for federal policy in post-secondary education and served until 2013. Since 2015, she has been executive director of the College Promise Campaign, which bills itself as a national movement with the goal that the first two years of community college “become as universal, free, and accessible as high school has been for nearly a century”.
Her “proudest achievement” in government was that “we increased the number of students from low-income families who came to college by more than 50 per cent, actually it was almost 60 per cent, over the first four years in office”, she told Times Higher Education during a visit to the UK to give the Higher Education Policy Institute’s annual lecture.
She added that “our biggest challenge to this today [is], can we get them through [college]?”
In terms of how that increase was achieved, she highlighted a Congress-approved increase in Pell Grants for poorer students. She also said that moves to “ameliorate the huge swings in the interest rate in the [federal] loan programmes” were key achievements.
Dr Kanter said that “education was a priority” for Mr Obama. “He and Michelle overcame challenges that were enormous and they talk about this quite a bit,” she added. “Michelle Obama talks about [asking herself the question] ‘was she good enough for Princeton?...Did she have the confidence?’”
For Dr Kanter, that shows that there will be others out there who never made such steps and that “there’s talent at all levels that we’re not tapping into – we need a whole reimagining of how we develop talent from the earliest age”.
Asked if the Obama administration had failed on the issue of improving college affordability, Dr Kanter replied that 80 per cent of US students graduate from public institutions, rather than higher-cost private institutions, and “a third of people are coming out of higher education with no debt”.
She said that “I think we did a pretty good job”, but added that “you have to look at the loan programme in terms of sectors [public, private] – and the contributions of sectors as to whether college costs rose during the Obama years, stayed the same or [fell]”.
However, she did acknowledge that in high-cost courses “the other costs of textbooks, the non-tuition and fees costs for low-income students are really a huge barrier”.
In terms of what Mr Trump might mean for higher education, Dr Kanter highlighted the future of undocumented students in colleges – the children of illegal immigrants given temporary status by Mr Obama – as a major issue given the president-elect’s anti-immigration rhetoric. There is also the question of whether there would be a “chill” on foreign student enrolment arising from that rhetoric and potential deteriorations in US relations with some nations, she said.
Dr Kanter said that there were also question marks over higher education regulations introduced by the Obama administration in response to scandals over for-profit colleges’ heavy reliance on federal student aid and the high loan default rates evidenced by their students.
Rules introduced include “gainful employment” regulations that tie access to student federal aid to current loan repayment rates among graduates (resented by some institutions as a cost burden).
Dr Kanter said that “every year there were amendments” to legislation in Congress to stop the regulations, including from Republican senator and former presidential nominee John McCain.
She warned that if further such amendments are proposed and “you have a president who thinks differently…those [amendments] may stand”.
The College Promise Campaign, launched in 2015, followed in the footsteps of Mr Obama’s announcement of a goal to make community college tuition free. Mr Obama unveiled the campaign’s advisory board at its launch.
The campaign aims to unite “business and government and philanthropy locally” to fund two free years of college through “performance-based” scholarships. It maps about 150 such initiatives across the US on its website, Dr Kanter said.
The campaign builds on existing initiatives – such as that introduced in 2005 by the city of Kalamazoo in Michigan involving funding the city’s public high school graduates to receive up to 100 per cent of tuition free at Michigan’s state colleges and universities – and tries to build public support for more states, cities and communities to introduce such measures.
The campaign is based on the premise that “high school is not enough” in an economy that will need high skill levels to compete globally, said Dr Kanter.