Education 101: The 2012 Election and Higher Education

Cartoon by Kelley Wills

With Nov. 6 creeping steadily closer, the 2012 presidential campaign is ramping up as incumbent President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney finalize their efforts to win the American people’s vote. Undecided voters face a myriad of issues on which the candidates seem unable to agree. From national healthcare to foreign policy, the candidates appear split, with each campaign claiming that the other will drastically affect the country’s future. However partisan the situation may be, there seems to be one stance that Obama and Romney share: Education.

Both parties have made it clear that education in America is a top priority. Governor Jeb Bush states in his foreword for the Romney campaign’s education white paper that “There is no more critical issue facing the United States than that of education reform.”

The idea that the American education system is failing seems to go beyond party politics, and Bush’s statement is mirrored in the words of President Obama when he spoke to a joint session of Congress in 2009. While discussing education, the President insisted that “In a global economy, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity; it is a pre-requisite.”

Both parties seem willing to agree that America is in desperate need of education reform, and a number of national and international organizations have released studies which confirm the sad truth: America is no longer the intellectual center of the world.

The Washington Post reports that SAT results from American high schools in 2012 were the lowest in four decades, with huge disparities in scores between students in families from differing economic backgrounds. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also released its latest education results in 2010, with the United States ranking 14th in reading, and 25th in math. This puts countries such as the Netherlands, China and even Estonia at a higher level of academic success than America based on international standards.

Even as the country’s economic crisis keeps both federal and state budget-makers on edge, education spending has continued to rapidly increase. The Department of Education’s proposed 2012 budget was more than 68 million dollars, compared to the budget of 37 million in the year 2000. Even with taxpayers spending more money than ever before for public education, only 55 percent of college students in a bachelors degree program graduate within six years.

Despite the federal government spending more on education than ever before, tuition costs continue to rise. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of a four-year degree from an American institution has risen nearly 62 percent in the last 10 years. This steep increase coincides with a national per capita income growth of only 16 percent over the same period of time. As incomes remain unable to keep up with rising costs, record numbers of students are taking out loans for college: 100 billion dollars in 2011, with interest rates as high as 6.8 percent.

Politics had profound effects on South Carolina’s education budget in 2011, when newly elected Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, a historically staunch Republican, announced in May that the state would not participate in the next round of Race to the Top.

Zais argued that “More federal money for education will not solve our problems,” and that South Carolina would decline to compete for a federal education grant. While it is impossible to predict where South Carolina would have ranked in the second round, after being a finalist in the first, Zais gave away the state’s chance to receive any grant, with no promise of meaningful reform within the state.

With a failing education system costing more money than ever before, it is reasonable that both Democrats and Republicans can come to a consensus on the idea of reform. However, strong ideological differences between parties have provided two very different solutions for improving student performance while simultaneously making college more affordable. Many sweeping party issues, including government regulation and private industry have crept into each candidate’s education policy, and party lines seem impassable in working toward creating a compelling solution to a national shortcoming.


Obama: “A plan to out-educate the world”

In the past four years, Obama has made strides to extend increased federal aid around the country and to remove the private banking industry from their role in distributing federal grants. Pell grants, the primary government-issued aid for college students in low-income households, increased by 95 percent nationally since Obama took office in 2008.

Nearly 121,000 students in South Carolina were assisted by Pell grants in the past year, alongside many more receiving a substantial college tax credit. As the number of grants has increased, the practice allowing private banks to distribute federal money was disbanded, with student grants being almost completely nationalized.

In an effort to increase student performance throughout the education system, Obama championed a new federal incentive program called “Race to the Top,” which awarded anywhere from $20 to $750 million in federal education funds to states which improved teacher and student performance through creative and productive reform.

Obama’s reelection campaign touts very similar plans for the next four years, with government aid and capped repayment plans being central to his education policy. Obama would cap loan repayment at 10 percent of a student’s income after they graduate from college, ideally putting more spending money in their pocket.


Romney: “A chance for every child”

The Romney campaign relies heavily on a platform of decreased federal regulation in all of its forms. The support of private enterprise is even featured in Romney’s education outline, entitled “A Chance for Every Child.” Romney suggests reinstating private banking to its historical role in the federal financial aid system in order to give students and families options for education financing.

Romney also supports parental choice in the form of school vouchers, which would give families the ability to take their children out of public school and subsidize a private education. President of SC New Democrats Phil Noble said “Republicans had a good idea,” but students should be limited to choice within the public school system. With public education already struggling, Noble said he believes that reducing enrollment would only compound the problem.


The Solution: Increased funding v. improved efficiency

The College of Charleston has seen a significant increase in the number of students requesting financial aid, according to Derwin Simpson, student services manager in the financial aid office. Recent statistics show that approximately 68 percent of students apply for or receive aid from the school. Simpson said students are relying more heavily on financial aid, because of the national economy’s poor performance. Another contributing factor is the reduction of funding to public education on both a national and state level.

“There needs to be a recognition on the part of the public and our elected leaders that investment in education is one of our best opportunities to improve our economy, our productivity, our ranking among nations, our tax base, and improve the employability of our citizens,” Simpson said via e-mail. “Reduction in federal and state spending for education will have a serious impact on the budgets of colleges/universities.”

Both presidential candidates, as well as several officials in higher education, think federal funding is key to improving higher education. However, it may not be all about the number of government dollars the schools receive.

According to Cherry Daniel, career educator and College of Charleston Board of Trustees member, the education budget can only be split so many ways, and colleges around the country should focus on efficiency in the classroom as well as in administrative offices, instead of waiting for more federal or state dollars to appear.

Daniel said the board is “very sensitive to the (student loan) debt issue,” and is making strides to reduce costs and raise efficiency. To more fully recognize the issue, the board has implemented a cost-containment study, with an external firm hired to analyze the school’s departments, which Daniel said are “administration top-heavy.”

Even as the college tries to further understand its shortcomings in efficiency, Daniel makes it clear that the board still has the students in mind. In 2012, every public college in South Carolina, except for the College of Charleston, raised its tuition. Daniel said that this decision was made by the board to make clear that “The board will not arbitrarily raise tuition; there has to be a reason.” Daniel does not believe that the tuition cap, which was broken last year, had any sort of contrary effects on students.

Individuals like Daniel believe that America’s education system is flawed in its efficiency, while others believe reduced funding to be the source of the problem. Voters face a decision on whether or not they believe federal funding is the solution or if it is only effective alongside substantial educational reform.

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