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An Education Lesson for Clinton and Obama

by Derrick Z. Jackson

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama talk much about a pachyderm in the room, and it is not the mascot of the GOP.Put it like this: Do you think either Obama or Clinton will really take college presidents to the woodshed to provide universal affordability?

Clinton raises the roof when she tells parents and students struggling to pay tuition, "You are not invisible to me." The room cheers when Obama claims he will put a college education "within reach of every American." Their proposals on higher ed are similar.

Clinton proposes a $3,500 college tax credit, Obama $4,000. Both claim they will dramatically simplify federal student aid applications, increase Pell Grants, boost community colleges, and make college easy to afford for young people willing to give back in public service. Both say higher ed is core to the "American dream."

This all sounds nice until you remember that both of them swear they will fight special interests. Oops.

The Obama and Clinton campaigns have respectively received $2.1 million and $1.7 million from the education sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In general, professors and administrators have so far given Democratic causes $9.2 million in the 2008 election cycle, compared with only $2.9 million to Republican causes. The biggest spenders come from the University of California ($491,400), Harvard, William & Mary, Stanford, and Columbia, with 71 to 97 percent of the contributions going to Democrats (Tufts University is 17th on the list with 100 percent of its $90,500 going to Democratic causes).

John McCain has received $228,000.

In recent months, the Senate Finance Committee has openly questioned why tuition costs run way ahead of inflation. Last month, the Democratic chairman, Max Baucus of Montana, and ranking Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa sent a letter to 136 colleges with endowments of $500 million or more to ask how much of those endowments go toward tuition relief. There is talk of mandating that colleges spend at least 5 percent of their endowments on financial aid, which many colleges of course reject out of hand. Private colleges are currently exempt from federal laws requiring private nonprofits to spend at least that much on their charitable causes. This week, the House passed legislation that helps a lot on Pell Grants, but rejected an amendment forcing colleges to use at least 5 percent of their endowments to lower costs.

"It's fair to ask whether a college kid should have to wash dishes in the dining hall to pay his tuition when his college has a billion dollars in the bank," Grassley said.

Many universities, including $35 billion Harvard, have announced various plans to provide more aid. Smaller private schools are trying to be as creative as they can, such as the decision by California Lutheran to let students who are accepted both there and at either public UCLA or UC Santa Barbara to attend Lutheran at the UCLA or UCSB tuition.

These developments have been enough for Grassley to back off. This week at the Reuters Regulation Summit, Grassley said, "If the trend continues as it is, there probably won't be a need for legislation. The possibility of legislation is out there. I haven't given up on legislation, but I've slowed the push for legislation."

But this barely addresses the fact that tuitions around the nation, especially at less-endowed private and state systems have doubled over the last five to 15 years. There is no sign that tuitions will not double again in the next five to 10 years. In education speeches highlighted on their campaign websites, Clinton is more direct than Obama in hinting that colleges have a responsibility to curtail their greed. "We'll work to hold college costs down and we will hold colleges accountable," she has said.

But Clinton does not threaten to mandate universal college affordability as she does healthcare coverage. Likewise, the same Obama who boasts of telling Detroit it must make fuel-efficient cars has not thrown down the gauntlet to college presidents. The education sector is the sixth-largest giver to Obama and 10th-largest contributor to Clinton. It makes it an open question as to whether students who mandate change, or the presidents who want no mandates, will come first in either administration.

© Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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