The annual State of the Union Address is a key aspect of the political spectacle of the modern Presidency. While the SOTU is actually a codified mandate in the U.S. Constitution, only in the 20th Century has it become a regular (and now annual) speech delivered to Congress — previously it had generally been a written document sent and read by a clerk. While the first broadcast SOTU was Calvin Coolidge's in 1923, via radio, the Address' central position in American political life was cemented with the first TV broadcast of Harry Truman's speech in 1947.
It's in these addresses that Presidents announce new policy goals, attempt to shore up public support, try out new narrative and rhetorical frames to shape the political landscape for the coming year, and in most cases, assiduously avoid going into detail.
When it comes to Higher Education, the U.S. Federal government plays a much more hands-off role than most other nations. Because Federal support of public higher education has always assumed state establishment, regulation, and control (starting with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890), much of what can be done at the Federal level has to do with funding. What little rule-making is done is usually in the context of eligibility tests for funds (like the atrocious Solomon Amendment).
The usual suspects in Federal higher ed policy debates are loan and grant programs — Pell, Stafford, Perkins, PLUS, etc. Proposals often deal with them at one or both ends: how much the students get, and how much they have to pay back. While there is usually tweaking of the size of Pell grants or Stafford Loans, nobody expects them to approach the percentage of tuition cost that they once did. One modest improvement enacted in 2010 is that Pell grant increases are now automatic, and pegged to the rate of inflation + 1%. That being said, Pell grants are now limited to 12 full-time semesters (down from 18), and the maximum award of $5,730 will now only be automatically granted is your family income is below $23,000 (down from $30k). In addition, for graduate students, Stafford Loans will no longer be subsidized (i.e. accrued interest is no longer waived during your time in school or during deferment). Bad news for the students who need financial support the most.
However, the biggest policy shift over the past six years has been the expansion and refinement of the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR). For those who can enroll, IBR caps loan payments at a percentage of your income and forgives whatever's left on the loan after a certain number of years (notably this does not apply to private loans, which can be the harshest burdens of all). As of right now, for most with student loans, IBR is capped at 15% of your income over 25 years. Congress changed that, so starting in 2014 the cap is now 10% of your income over 20 years.
Since this site is called "For Student Power" after all, I feel obligated to point out that issues of power and governance never, ever come up in higher ed policy, and certainly never in a rhetorical event like the SOTU — except in the shallowest of forms, consumer power.
Given recent proposals, we can make a reasonable guess as to what will be said tonight.
As he announced it earlier this month, President Obama's signature higher education proposal will likely be his push to make two years of community college tuition-free. Under this plan, the Federal government would pay for 75% of tuition provided that states chip in the rest. Students have to keep a GPA of at least 2.5 and be enrolled part-time. This tuition assistance would be in addition to Pell grants, so students would be able to use Pell money to pay for other education-related expenses: things like books and transportation, but not off-campus housing (which is what nearly all community college students have). All this — roughly $60 billion per year — would be funded by new taxes on the top 1% of earners.
But of course, there's a lot more to the pricetag of community college than tuition. As Chris Hicks at Jobs with Justice points out:
Four out of 10 community college students graduate with an average of $14,000 in student loans, and more than 20 percent of these graduates will wind up defaulting on those loans. [...]
Tuition only makes up about 21 percent of the cost of attendance (or $3,347 in the latest academic year, according to the College Board). Instead, the bulk of the costs facing community college are actually spent on housing ($7,705), books ($1,328) and transportation ($1,735).
And the requirements placed on community colleges have been kept vague. What the White House means by "Colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes" remains to be outlined, and this would be a big means of imposing horrendous corporate-style ed reform currently dominating K-12 education across the country. Bill Gates has said that community colleges are great places for his kind of reform, in large part because faculty are almost entirely adjunct — there's very little to keep administrators from making whatever drastic changes they want. Pushing universal standardized tests on all colleges was a dream of the Bush Administration, and similar moves are being attempted at the state level. Be on the lookout for "accountability" being posited as a solution to every ill, from high tuition costs to low graduate employment.
While any tax increase (arguably anything at all) that Obama proposes will likely be DOA given the Republican-controlled Congress, the President did float several targeted education-related tax cuts and credits, including making Pell grant money tax-free (read more about them here). It's possible some of them may pass inside a larger GOP bill as a "sweetener" to pull in Senate Democrats and the White House. Given the improbability of its passage in the next two years, one has to wonder aloud why Obama launched this proposal, which seems tailor-made to excite his base, at such an electorally inopportune time. Wouldn't it have been more useful to propose this — or something even more ambitious — before November 2014?
UPDATE: Here's President Obama's 2015 SOTU address. Here are the higher ed passages below — nothing surprising:
That’s why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.
Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. Understand, you’ve got to earn it — you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time. Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today. And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.
For reference, below are the relevant SOTU passages about higher ed for the last six years:
The Joining Forces alliance that Michelle and Jill Biden launched has already encouraged employers to hire or train nearly 400,000 veterans and military spouses. Taking a page from that playbook, the White House just organized a College Opportunity Summit where already, 150 universities, businesses, and nonprofits have made concrete commitments to reduce inequality in access to higher education – and help every hardworking kid go to college and succeed when they get to campus.
Five years ago, we set out to change the odds for all our kids. We worked with lenders to reform student loans, and today, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before.
We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career. We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education. We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to ten percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt. And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.
Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges. So those German kids, they're ready for a job when they graduate high school. They've been trained for the jobs that are there. Now at schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this.
Through tax credits, grants and better loans, we’ve made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers can’t keep on subsidizing higher and higher and higher costs for higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure that they do.
So tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria -- where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.
Jackie Bray is a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie’s tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant.
I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did. Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, and Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers -– places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.
When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July.
Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves millions of middle-class families thousands of dollars, and give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.
Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.
Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that. Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.
Let’s also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren’t yet American citizens.
America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.
Of course, the education race doesn’t end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within reach of every American. That’s why we’ve ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks, and used the savings to make college affordable for millions of students. And this year, I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit – worth $10,000 for four years of college.
Because people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today’s fast-changing economy, we are also revitalizing America’s community colleges. Last month, I saw the promise of these schools at Forsyth Tech in North Carolina. Many of the students there used to work in the surrounding factories that have since left town. One mother of two, a woman named Kathy Proctor, had worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old. And she told me she’s earning her degree in biotechnology now, at 55 years old, not just because the furniture jobs are gone, but because she wants to inspire her children to pursue their dreams too. As Kathy said, “I hope it tells them to never give up.”
If we take these steps – if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they’re born until the last job they take – we will reach the goal I set two years ago: by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.
Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. And with that change, I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC.
Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families. To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer-subsidies that go to banks for student loans. Instead, let’s take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants. And let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only ten percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after twenty years – and forgiven after ten years if they choose a career in public service. Because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college. And it’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs – because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem.
Because of this plan, families who are struggling to pay tuition costs will receive a $2,500 tax credit for all four years of college.
In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history.
And half of the students who begin college never finish.
This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education – from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.
We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students.
And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education. And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country – Senator Edward Kennedy.