US elections: tighter budgets for higher education

By Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed

November 3, 2010

Yesterday’s midterm elections in the US – in which the Republicans gained control of the US House of Representatives and some key governors’ offices – are likely to add to the financial pressures on colleges and universities.

Although Republicans did not focus on higher education in their Congressional campaigns, they vowed to roll back federal spending in most areas unrelated to the military or national security. If the Republicans keep their promise, higher education institutions could see an end to the generous increases in federal student aid and research programmes that they have enjoyed in the first two years of the Obama Administration.

Democrats, who have backed those increases and who have also pushed for tougher scrutiny of for-profit higher education, have kept control of the Senate, although they will emerge with a smaller majority than they previously enjoyed.

Lobbyists for higher education have predicted that a split Congress, and the strong divisions on many issues between the Obama Administration and the new House leadership, will result in a Congress unlikely to pass major pieces of legislation on higher education (or almost anything).

This would be a substantial change from the past two years, when Congress has passed a major overhaul of the federal student loan system and approved significant increases in Pell Grants – the major student aid programme for low-income students.

For public colleges and universities, Republican wins in several gubernatorial races – especially in Ohio – could have a more immediate impact.

Like their counterparts running for Congressional seats, the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls did not campaign against spending on higher education per se, but they pledged to cut spending overall and to cut taxes: it is unlikely that the new governors will be able to do so without more cuts to colleges’ budgets.

Even as colleges braced themselves for tighter budgets at the federal and state levels, they received some good fiscal news yesterday. Voters in several states rejected plans that would have automatically curbed state taxes or spending, and voters in several states and localities approved plans to issue bonds to build or renovate college facilities.

In Arizona, voters approved a measure to ban public colleges from considering race, ethnicity or gender in any of their programmes.

The impact of the measure is expected to be greatest in graduate and professional education, where Arizona’s universities have considered race and ethnicity in some decisions about both admissions and financial aid. California, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington State have previously passed similar measures.

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