Universities await signs of Obama’s intentions

As the President is sworn in, academics listen closely for hints as to how he may help them. Jon Marcus reports

January 20, 2009

With Barack Obama’s inauguration today as the 44th President of the United States, American universities are studying one subject more closely than almost any other: how – and whether – the nation’s new leader will support higher education.

President Obama once worked as a professor of constitutional law, and many of his top appointees have served as deans, department heads and professors. But so far he has given few clues to his intentions for the sector.

During his presidential campaign, he promised to create a new tax credit towards tuition fees for university students and their parents worth $4,000 (£2,700), in exchange for a commitment from each student to conduct 100 hours of community service. And he has pledged to streamline the application process for financial aid, a relatively uncontroversial idea that was also supported by his Republican opponent, John McCain.

But the biggest question remains whether President Obama will siphon part of his proposed near-trillion-dollar economic stimulus plan to help the universities that have collectively lost billions in investments because of the stock-market crash and hundreds of millions more in reduced appropriations from state governments whose revenues have plummeted.

At least one expert has said that universities looking for funding – to hire new science faculty, upgrade or renovate facilities, and tackle other pressing needs – may not get everything they expect.

“The anti-intellectual philosophy [of the George W. Bush years] will change,” said James Samels, a higher education consultant who formerly worked in politics. “However, because Obama has people from higher education on his staff who are pretty sophisticated, I think there will actually be closer scrutiny of higher education and, as a result, greater accountability expected, because these people have been on the other side of the fence in higher education.”

Dr Samels said that universities seeking federal government help will be held accountable for such things as student retention, completion and employment rates.

President Obama hinted in a speech at George Mason University on 8 January that part of his massive stimulus package may go to higher education. But he was not specific, beyond saying: “To give our children the chance to live out their dreams in a world that’s never been more competitive, we will equip tens of thousands of schools, community colleges and public universities with 21st-century classrooms, labs and libraries.”

Those university labs will increasingly be encouraged to perform applied science, Dr Samels said. “I think it’s going to surprise some people how much this president is going to be… practical and hands-on about science that can benefit the consumer,” he said.

The incoming President’s policies may also offer a boon for community colleges, which provide two-year, largely vocational associate degrees, often to low-income students who fall short of the requirements for admission to four-year universities.

“Social justice is going to be back in, and that’s a good sign for community colleges,” Dr Samels said.

Community colleges train students for such fields as transport planning, which may be increasingly in demand in the wake of an expected national initiative to rebuild roads and other infrastructure, he said.

President Obama also has opposed universities’ bans, for various ideological purposes, on allowing military recruiters on their campuses. He has criticised academics who require students to buy textbooks they have authored, and the high cost of textbooks generally. And he has suggested that undocumented immigrants should have the same right to attend American community colleges as US citizens.

These things, however, may not be within the President’s power to effect.

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