Higher Ed in the Next Congress

As Americans head to the polls today, the implications that their votes hold for federal higher education policy aren’t likely to drive them toward a candidate. Nonetheless, the outcomes of today’s Congressional elections will shape debates on higher education for the next few years.

Polls and prognostication suggest that Republicans will easily capture a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Races for several of the 39 Senate seats up for grabs today are too close to predict and may be for days. Regardless of which party holds the majority, it’s expected to be a slim one.

With Republicans leading the House and possibly the Senate, federal issues of key importance to colleges and universities won’t be top priorities, but they may get some attention, particularly as budget lines primed for slashing and as areas of oversight that will stick in Democrats’ craws.

Pell Grants, tougher oversight of for-profit colleges and better accountability for research funding may not on their own be top priorities for the 112th Congress, but they are likely to creep into some of the broader discussions of fiscal responsibility that will inevitably dominate discussion. They’re already surrounded by debates symptomatic of the scarcity of federal funds and will continue to be examined with microscopic precision, especially with a Republican majority in one or both chambers.

In September, a group of House Republican leaders including Representative John Boehner (Ohio), the party’s apparent choice for Speaker of the House, issued “A Pledge to America,” a document that offered broad strokes of what Republicans would do with a majority. Most important for higher education is the group’s vow to cut non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels and to impose tougher oversight of programs already in place. If they keep that promise, many of the education and research programs that offer funding to students and colleges could face cuts.

Significant new legislation is unlikely, said Robert L. Moran, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities: “There isn’t anything on the horizon for higher ed in the next year or so.” While the 110th Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act and the 111th passed the reconciliation bill that included several measures from the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, including the end of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, he doesn’t see the 112th having much time or will to examine higher education.

The top education priority for Congress — and most likely for the Obama administration — over the next two years will almost certainly be renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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