Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - Higher Education Act

Posted on July 31, 2008

“Higher Education” July 31, 2008 Mr. President, in case anyone is wondering, these boxes, which are nearly as tall as I am, are the rules and regulations that our 6,000 colleges and universities must comply with in order to receive students who have a Federal grant or loan. As I will make clear in my remarks, my primary objection to the legislation I am about to address is that the legislation doubles the size of this stack of boxes. My fear is we are undermining the quality of American higher education. The greatest threat, I believe, to American higher education is not underfunding, it is overregulation. Before I say that, let me first say a word, as has been said before, about Senator Kennedy, Senator Enzi, and Senator Mikulski. While they have, among themselves, different philosophical views, I regard each of them as institutions whom I greatly admire. In other words, they like to work within this body across party lines to get a result. I thank both Senator Enzi and Senator Mikulski for the courtesy accorded me in the development of this result. And as every other Member of this body does, I greatly admire Senator Kennedy for his tenacity and his commitment to education. Obviously, we wish he were here tonight to join us. Because I admire Senator Kennedy and Senator Mikulski and Senator Enzi does not mean I have to admire the particular result of this work. After 4 years, the Senate has spewed forth a well-intentioned contraption of unnecessary rules and regulations that waste time and money that ought to be spent on students and improving quality. It confirms my belief that the greatest threat to the quality of American higher education is not underfunding, it is overregulation. Current Federal rules for the 6,000 higher education institutions that accept students with Federal grants or loans fill a stack of boxes that is nearly as tall as I am. The former President of Stanford, Gerhard Casper, estimated that it cost these institutions from Harvard to the Nashville Auto Diesel College 7 cents of each federal dollar to do all the busy work to fill out these regulations. The legisation which we are considering tonight doubles those rules and regulations with 24 new categories and 100 new reporting requirements. These new requirements include a total of 54 so-called college watch lists which I believe will be too confusing for families to understand, and complicated rules involving textbooks which only will prove that Members of Congress have no idea about how faculty members prepare their courses. Most of these complications of rules, graduation rates in 48 different categories, disaggregation of student reporting dates by 14 racial, ethnic, and income subgroups, employment of graduates of institutions will leave college administrators scratching their heads and create thousands of new jobs for people who know how to fill out forms. All of this will be put on the Web, I suppose, and most of it will be sent to Washington, DC, for someone to read. Having once been the Secretary of Education myself, I do not know who will read all these new regulations and all these new reports, and I don't know what they would do about them if they did read them. The American higher education system is far from perfect, but it is one thing in our country that works and it works well. It is our secret weapon in maintaining our brain power advantage so we can keep our higher standard of living and keep our jobs from going overseas. The United States not only has the best colleges and universities in the world, it has almost all of the best colleges and universities in the world. Some are big, some are small, some are public, some are private, some are profit, some are nonprofit. They are community colleges, historically Black colleges and church-affiliated institutions. Tuitions range from $50,000 a year at some private institutions to an average of $6,200 a year for 4-year public institutions, to $2,400 for community colleges. In Tennessee, some cities are even making community college free. Their foremost advantage, the advantage of all these 6,000 institutions, is that in a rapidly changing world, these 6,000 autonomous institutions are flexible and able to meet the needs of their student customers. Federal support for higher education goes almost all to these students. It does not go to the institutions. A little of it does, but almost all of it goes to the students who then choose the schools, forcing the institutions to compete, stay flexible and meet real needs. That is the precisely opposite way we fund kindergarten through the 12th grade. We give the money to elementary and secondary institutions, tending to freeze them into whatever they have been doing for the last 50 years. We can compare the success of our higher education system with the lack of success of our K through 12 system and wonder whether the reason might not be that in higher education, we focus on autonomy, choice, and competition. Generous research dollars in higher education are for the most part competitively awarded, which also helps to keep the institutions on their toes. The rest of the world is busy trying to emulate the American system of higher education, which means other countries are creating more autonomy, more choices, and more competition. Yet here we are in the Senate today cluttering up our secret weapon with the same bureaucratic nonsense that has stifled excellence in universities in other parts of the world and will do it here if these trends are not reversed. There is a great deal of beating of breasts about how much good this bill does to address the problem of college costs. It is ironic that the same legislation would add to tuition costs by imposing unnecessary regulations. And it is especially ironic that the very Members of Congress who are complaining the most about rising tuition costs fail to see that at least for public institutions, which about 70 percent of our students attend, Members of Congress are the cause of the rising costs. This is why it is true that State support for higher education has been low during this decade. Between 2000 and 2006, State spending for higher education increased by only 17 percent, while tuition at public institutions during that time was up 63 percent. It is also true that the reason tuition costs are up is that State spending is down. But what Members of Congress seem to be missing is that the principal reason State support of higher education is down is because Congress has mandated that States pay so much for programs such as Medicaid or fail to meet their commitments to programs like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA. When the Governors and legislatures are through paying for the mandates for Medicaid or to make up the lack of the Federal Government's commitment to IDEA, there is very little left for higher education. When Federal requirements for Medicaid dictate that State spending for Medicaid goes up 7 or 8 percent a year when the overall State budget is only going up 3 or 4 percent a year, the money has to come from somewhere. States have to balance their budgets, and in State after State, the money has been coming from higher education. That was true in Tennessee during the 1980s, when I was the Governor, and it is even more true today. During the 1980s, my major goal was to try to help us to spend at least 50 percent of our State tax dollar on education. My major adversary was Federal Medicaid. While I ultimately did succeed in getting to 50 cents, I had to squeeze it and push it and try to control it, and still it grew faster than everything else in the State budget. I was able to do that then because Medicaid and other health services were only about 15 cents of the State tax dollar. But by this decade, 2003 and 2004, the number was 40 percent of the State tax dollars in Tennessee went to education, not 50, and 31 cents went to Medicaid and health services. I am confident most of the cutting came out of higher education, which resulted in most of the tuition increases so the universities could operate and pay their bills. I would respectfully suggest that we in Congress need to start along two completely different tracks if we want to retain the autonomy, competition, and choice that has led to quality and access to American higher education. First, we need to deregulate, not overregulate higher education. Cut this stack of rules and regulations in half and use the time and the money for students and for academic excellence. Second, we need to stop loading State budgets with so many unfunded Federal mandates. For example, if Congress were to fully fund IDEA, the program for students with disabilities, at 40 percent of its cost, which is what Congress said it would do in the 1970s, that would add $250 million to Tennessee's revenue stream. I am sure much of this would go straight to higher education, whose annual budget is about $1.2 billion. More importantly, we need to give States more flexibility in dealing with Medicaid costs and give them an opportunity to take steps to make it easier to free themselves from outdated Federal Court consent decrees, which restrict the ability of Governors and legislators to direct money to higher education priorities. Then, of course, there is the REAL ID, another $4 billion in unfunded mandates for the States, and out of which pot do you think the States might take that? Higher education would be my guess. Most Governors and legislators can point to many more unfunded Federal mandates. These two steps are the best way to drive down college costs and to maintain academic excellence. There are major accomplishments in this bill, some of which I have worked on and of which I am proud. They include simplifying the Federal student aid form and allowing year-round Pell grants for students making progress toward a degree. There is a new compliance calendar, which the Secretary of Education will be required to develop, that will set forth all of the reports and the disclosures required under the Higher Education Act. I am proud to say I suggested that. In other words, the new Secretary of Education will have to make a calendar listing every single report that has to be complied with, so the small Catholic college in Baltimore might not have to hire three more people in to go through this growing stack of requirements. I authored the restrictions prohibiting the Secretary of Education from regulating student learning standards or requiring accreditors to adopt specific measures of learning assessment, which would have been additional federalizing of our 6,000 autonomous institutions. There is an accountability research grant in this bill to focus attention on institutions making progress in measuring student achievement and asking the advisory committee, which has already done such good work in simplifying the student application form, to review this stack of growing Federal regulations. I also sponsored the new discretionary grant program for Teach for America. All these actions in this bill are for the good, as is the increase in the availability of Pell grants for students who need help attending college. But I cannot support a piece of legislation that so undermines the excellence in higher education that comes from institutional autonomy. I would like to offer a few letters and statements, and I ask unanimous consent they be printed in the Record following my remarks. Mr. President, the first of these is a release today from the National Governors Association, which points out that Governors are responsible for making funding decisions that serve the best interests of all citizens. The Governors, in their release, say: Maintenance of effort undermines governors' authority and guarantees students and their families will be writing larger not smaller tuition checks in the future. This is not the answer to affordable higher education. Governors oppose the higher education bill because of the negative impacts of the maintenance of effort and implore Congress to vote against it. We had a vote on stripping out the maintenance-of-effort bill, but I lost that by one vote in the conference committee. Basically, what it says is that Members of the Senate and the House will substitute their judgment for that of Governors and State legislators. My suggestion was that if we are going to pass a bill and take credit for requiring States to spend more money on higher education, whether or not they have other priorities, then we might as well also go back down to our State capitals and join in the pain and suggest to the Governors whom to lay off or what school to close or what mental hospital to limit or what tax to raise because of our requirement about higher education maintenance of effort. The second letter I would like to include in the Record comes from the commissioner of the Department of Finance and Administration in Nashville. Our Democratic Governor, Phil Bredesen, who has done a great many good things for higher education during his 6 years, is in the midst of a budget crisis. He is reacting to the very idea that during the midst of that, when he is laying off employees and making cuts in virtually every program, that we would take it upon ourselves to say that if he doesn't increase funding for higher education, we are going to cut his Federal funding. All when we ourselves are one of the reasons he is having a hard time funding higher education, because of all our unfunded mandates. The third letter I would like to include is from the chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, one of our most distinguished research universities and one of which I am proud to be an alumnus. It is a well-modulated letter, as you would expect from the chancellor of Vanderbilt. The letter argues very eloquently why the autonomy, competition, and choice that characterizes excellence in higher education is so important and so fragile and needs to be respected by us as we pass higher education bills, rather than to use a blunderbuss and start stacking boxes and boxes of regulations on institutions such as Vanderbilt. Why do we think we can do a better job in the Senate making Vanderbilt University a better university by complying with all this stuff, when it takes money that might be used to educate the students and improve academic excellence? They already have deans, vice chancellors, provosts, chancellors, and a board of trustees. If they are a public institution, they have a Governor, they have a higher education commission. They have plenty of overseers. They do not need us. Two other letters, one from the president of Duke University, office of the president, Richard Brodhead, an equally thoughtful letter about the Federal role in higher education. I might say that North Carolina has done one of the best jobs of any State in accountability for higher education. No one is doubting we need accountability for the money the Federal Government spends. As I mentioned earlier, the dollars we spend for research, tens of millions a year, are made accountable by being competitively granted, for the most part. The dollars we spend for colleges and universities don't go to the colleges and universities, they go to the students, and the students choose the school. If they do not like the school or the cost of the school, they may go to another school. Each of those schools has to be accredited before the student can choose the school. That has been a marvelous system for helping to give autonomous institutions the freedom to be good, while at the same time allowing for accountability for the money we spend. Finally, two letters that were written to Senator Isakson of Georgia. One is from the president of the University of Georgia, Mike Adams, who was president of two other colleges before he was president of the University of Georgia. A distinguished educator. Georgia, of course, is one of our distinguished public universities in America. Finally, a letter from the President of Emory University, James Wagner, and the president of Georgia Tech, Gary Schuster, to Senator Isakson, making the same objections. As I said at the beginning, I admire my colleagues, I admire their 4 years of hard work, and I admire their commitment to a result. My hope would be we could go on two different tracks from here. One would be to look for ways to deregulate higher education, not add regulations to it. Realize that in America, where we are worrying that this might work or that might work, our system of higher education, with all its warts, is the best in the world. The rest of the world is trying to emulate it. Its greatest threat, in terms of its quality, is overregulation, not underfunding. That leads me to the second track we go on. I hope we will be careful as Members of Congress that if we have a great idea for States, that we don't pass it and send them the bill. Because I know from having been Governor and having been president of a university and having been Secretary of Education, and seeing it in different areas. As a Governor making up a budget, it's pretty well set that you start with K-12. That is pretty well set. He then goes to prisons, and that is probably in the courts. Then he does mental health. That might be in the courts too. Then he or she goes to highways, and that comes from the gas tax. Then they are pretty well down to the choice between Medicaid and higher education. I can guarantee you that if we continue to increase requirements for funding of higher education at the State level, at the rate of 7, 8 or 9 percent a year, when State budgets are only going up 2 or 3 or 4 percent a year, we will significantly reduce the quality of our State universities and colleges. We will significantly increase the tuition costs that we say in this bill we would like to lower.