Speeches & Floor Statements

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

Posted on July 23, 2007

Mr. President, I wish to congratulate Senator Kennedy and Senator Enzi and the members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee for their work on this bill. I have been around awhile, but I have not been in the Senate for very long, and we have been working on this bill since I came to the Senate, which was 4 years ago. It needed to be reauthorized some time ago. But similar to some other things, it has gotten a little better with age, and it is a very good bill. Although we have been working on this bill for some time, I believe it has gotten better over time. It has a number of excellent provisions in it. There is one major concern I have which I intend to speak on. Let me say what that is at the outset before I begin to talk about what I like about the bill. My late friend, Alex Haley, used to say, "Find the good and praise it," and I can do that with this bill, but I do have one concern. My concern is the creeping regulation of higher education. I believe the single most important thing we could do to help improve excellence in higher education in America, which is already pretty good -- the best in the world -- is to deregulate, not add more federal regulations. Unfortunately, with this bill, we significantly add to the stack of regulations that college and university presidents all over America have to wade through every year in order to accept students who receive Federal grants and loans. Let me talk about some of the good things about this bill. In the first place, it was an excellent decision to separate this piece of legislation from the work we acted on last week -- what we call the reconciliation bill. This reauthorizes the Higher Education Act for the next 5 years, and it has separate provisions which deserve separate attention. For example, it increases the amount of Pell grants from $4,300 to $6,300 over the next 5 years. Pell grants are for the lowest income students. They don't help the middle-income families very much because the dollars don't get up to that level. Those families are eligible for other aid from universities and other grants and loans. But $6,300 for a Pell grant is a significant amount of money. For example, if you go to Harvard, it doesn't come close to paying the cost, but if you go to the University of Tennessee, it pays almost the entire tuition for the year. In fact, if you go to the University of Tennessee with a Pell grant, you are very likely to show up with what we call a HOPE scholarship, which also pays for tuition. So you would start off with a HOPE scholarship of -- I think the amount is about $4,000 -- plus your $6,300 from the Pell grant, if you needed that additional amount of money. So the Pell grant would be increasing from its current level of $4,310 to $6,300. If there are families across the country who are watching our debate and thinking they can't go to college, it is important for them to know that the community colleges of America cost several hundred dollars a quarter, and that the great State universities of America typically cost $5,000 or $6,000 or $7,000 a year in tuition. Now, that does not include living expenses, but we all pay living expenses, whether we are in college or we are not in college. This decision to move up the Pell grant to $6,300 is a big help. I hope it sends a signal across this country to families without means that their son or their daughter may start their higher education, for example, at a community college for 2 years, living at home and paying a few hundred dollars and letting the Pell grant pay for the total cost of the tuition, the total cost of the books. So there will be zero charge for that family for 2 years, and then after 2 more years, go on to a State University, where the tuition might not be very much more than the Pell grant. In addition, the Pell grants will be even larger for students who are majoring in math, science, critical foreign languages, and thereby encouraging students to pursue those fields. This Congress is taking a number of steps to try to refocus our country's attention on our brain power advantage, to make sure we keep that so we can keep our good jobs from going overseas. Senator Kennedy and Senator Enzi and Senator Frist last year changed the law and created the SMART grants to focus on our competitiveness, and the increase to the Pell grants do that significantly more in this legislation. In addition, this legislation, in an overdue way, recognizes the importance of a year-round Pell grant. Many people still have in their mind the idea of the traditional college student on the traditional campus. That life has changed. Many of the students who take Pell grants have to work. They are older. They may be moms going back to school to get the training to get a better job or a dad doing the same, and they may not have time to take the summer off, or that might not fit their schedule. The way the law has been, they couldn't get the Pell grant, if there were, say, three quarters, they could only get it for two. This says that -- and Senator Clinton, I congratulate her for working on this as well. A number of Senators have worked on making the Pell grant a year-round opportunity. I am also delighted about legislation I introduced, again with Senator Clinton, to expand Teach For America. Teach For America attracts some of the brightest young men and women in our country who have a passion for serving. There are many ways to serve our country. Some of our most valued are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others are in the inner city helping children who haven't had a chance to learn to read, to learn to compute, and learn to have a chance in this country. As Lyndon Johnson used to say, we want people to be equal at the starting line, but we need to help some people get to that starting line, and through Teach For America, young men and women can do just that. This will build a corps of young college graduates who will spend 2 years in those schools, and it will expand the group of influential alumni of Teach For America who care about our public schools. I actually think that what may end up being more important about Teach For America than their service for 2 years in the inner city schools is that we will expand these young men and women who will grow to be the leaders of this country in a relatively short period of time. Then they will always have within their personal missions the idea of giving every student an opportunity to go to a first-class public school. Having a corps of Americans who value education and who value public schools, especially, will do our country more good than almost anything I can think of. Mr. President, I believe we have the best colleges and universities in the world. We don't just have some of them, we have almost all of them. They have their problems, but we should recognize the asset that they are. One of my primary goals as a Senator is to relieve the burdensome, oppressive paperwork that the Federal Government places upon our colleges and universities, freeing up scarce dollars to spend on improving quality teaching and research rather than paperwork. The higher education system -- and I want to be careful saying this because I don't want to drive anyone away from this idea -- is a Republican's dream, a conservative's dream. We have 6,000 autonomous institutions. Some are public, some are private. Some are religious, some are secular. Some are historically Black, some are Native American, some are Jewish. Some are in cities. There is Harvard and there is the Nashville Auto Diesel College. There are 6,000 autonomous institutions that compete. We don't give money directly to those institutions, for the most part. We give the money to the students, and students take those vouchers -- one-half of America's college students attend our autonomous institutions with a Federal grant or loan that helps them to pay for college, and they are flat out vouchers. I have introduced several times a Pell grant for kids, saying that is what a voucher is for K-12, but we will reserve that discussion for another day. Since World War II, quite by accident, we have said to the world: Here is the way we organize our education. It is a marketplace of 6,000 institutions, where 1)colleges compete for students, 2) Government money follows those students to the institution of their choice, and 3) the Federal research money is, for the most part, competed for in peer-reviewed efforts. The rest of the world is scrambling to catch up with our system. In China, they are deregulating. In France, they are deregulating and creating a more competitive system and trying to emulate the model that we have. So what concerns me about our Government's attitude toward higher education is the number of forms each institution has to fill out. I have a stack of forms this tall in my office. I didn't bring it here to the Senate floor. Every institution has to fill that out in order to accept students who bring with them Federal grants or loans, which are almost all of the students. That means the small church-related schools have to hire somebody else. They have to go through all that. The President of Stanford -- not a small, church-related school -- said 7 out of 10 cents of every tax dollar is spent on complying with Government regulations. Would it not be better if we allowed Stanford and the small schools and the Nashville Auto Diesel College, as well as Harvard, to use more of their money to help students and less to comply with paperwork? With passage of this bill, we will require the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid to review regulations imposed under the act and report to the Secretary and Congress ways to reduce regulation, streamline procedures, and simplify for the benefit of students. That will be one small force moving in the right direction. It would create a discretionary grant program for an institution of higher education to maintain a Web site that keeps track of Federal regulations that have an impact on institutions of higher education. A small, church-related college might only have to hire a person who spends half of his or her time keeping up with the rules and regulations because the Web site might have done it for them. We require the Secretary to develop an annual compliance calendar for disclosures required by the Higher Education Act. These provisions might seem not very important, but I can guarantee you, as a former president of a university, they can make a lot of difference. I would like very much to have spread out before me a calendar from the Government that said we have listed all of the rules and regulations and forms and papers that you have to file. That would mean I knew what it was and that would save me a lot of time in figuring it out. Despite that good news, I am afraid there are, nevertheless, problems in this bill. Currently there are 24 reporting categories and 74 reporting requirements with hundreds of data points. That is today, before this bill passes. My staff has identified 26 new categories and over 100 new reporting requirements imposed on higher education with this law, and that is even before the department starts its regulations. So I hope we can figure out a way to create competitive forces in favor of deregulation. It is as bad on our side of the aisle as it is on that side of the aisle. Very often, my Republican friends say, for example, prices at colleges have gone up, so let's put on price controls. When the pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, they said we know what religious oppression is, so let's practice it ourselves. We are supposed to be for markets and choice and less Federal regulation. So let's apply that to Federal higher education. I have worked on a number of provisions in the bill, and I thank Senators Kennedy and Enzi for permitting me to do that, working with others, including Senators Gregg and Reed, and I have worked on provisions that have been included that simplify the application form for students who apply for grants or loans. As I mentioned, I worked with Senator Clinton to help allow students who have Pell grants to use them year-round so they can finish earlier and get back to work and back with their families, rather than the antiquated requirement that they may only use them part of the year. I mentioned the compliance calendar to make it simpler for colleges, and the Teach for America plan, which Senators Harkin and Reid and others have cosponsored. There is an accountability research grant and a state data system pilot project. I thank Secretary Spellings for agreeing with these. As a result of her study of higher education, which pointed out a number of important things, we do have a fine system of higher education, but it needs to be challenged if we are going to keep our advantage. I felt that the Secretary, in her recommendations, was going too far in federalizing higher education, whether it be transfer of credit provisions, or whether it might be proposals mandated from Washington about student accountability. I thought that was a good goal but the wrong way to go about it. So Secretary Spellings has agreed to step back and focus instead on challenging our State boards of education and our college boards of trustees and our university presidents and our Governors and legislators to do their on on accountability. We are not going to kick it to Washington, DC, and let us conduct oversight of how they are doing their jobs, rather than to try to impose more of the one-size or a few-sizes-fit-all ideas from Washington. A part of doing that would be these new grants from the Department. In this bill, we have provided grants from the Secretary to create new measures for assessing student achievement in higher education. There is a difference in the Harvard classics department and the Nashville Auto Diesel College. I mention that because Harvard classics might be the best department for classics. I know the Nashville Auto Diesel College is the best training for mechanics. There is no need for us to figure out what is the appropriate accountability at those institutions. With great respect to the chair and Senators Kennedy and Enzi and the Department of Education, the institutions of higher education know more about accountability in higher education. We ought to make sure they are doing their job, not try and do it for them from here. Another example of what I would call the propensity to federalize education is to regulate the transfer of credit policy that individual institutions have. If we are going to have a marketplace, and if students are going to have choice, then it is the job of the students to find out from the colleges and universities what their rules are. Otherwise, we go to a European system or a Chinese system, or a system like our K-12 system where we, knowing all, tell everybody what to do, what the transfer of credit policies might be. So I strongly resist saying that the Federal Government ought not to have anything to say about whether the Nashville Auto Diesel College ought to be required to accept a transfer of credit from the Harvard classics department. I am not sure that a graduate or student in Harvard classics would know anything about a Nissan engine in Nashville, and vice versa. I am pretty sure we don't need to interfere with that, particularly if so much of the excellence in our system comes from this competition, and these autonomous institutions and this marketplace that allows students, followed by Government money, to choose and allows researchers to compete to see who deserves the money. So my hope is that as time goes on we can have a serious discussion in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and in the Education and Labor Committee in the House about deregulation of higher education. We all have good ideas about what to do. Some will be voted on as amendments tomorrow. If we all impose our good ideas from here, then they add up to another stack like this, and our higher education system begins to be smothered. I have had the privilege of working at several levels in higher education. When I was president of the University of Tennessee, I had a lot of oversight. The Governor was chairman of the board. The legislature approved the largest share of money that I received. I had a board of trustees to which I had to respond. There was a faculty council to which I paid a lot of attention. In terms of student accountability, the professors graded students on a regular basis. The dean graded the professors. The trustees, the president, the provost, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the Governor, and the legislature all had their say. There is plenty of supervision of higher education based on my experience. So we need to be careful. We have been wise since World War II with our loans and grants that half of Americans use to go to college to say here is the money. If the college is accredited, a student can take their choice. You may go to Notre Dame or to the community college down the street. You may go to the University of Tennessee or to Rhode Island. That is your choice, as long as it is accredited. Of course, some mistakes are made. I am sure that at the fringes some colleges are teaching goofy courses. Some schools are better than others. Overall, we don't have any enterprise in America that today has consistently outperformed the rest of the world as well as our system of higher education -- not our automobile business, not our aluminum business, and not our K-12 system. Even the Senate rarely raises above the level of the Baghdad Parliament when it comes to getting consensus on the war in Iraq. But the system of higher education, with all its sometimes stuffiness and its disagreeable political correctness, and even with the lengthy vacations and even with more tenure than probably is deserved, as a whole, is by far the finest in the world; and more regulation, as a whole, will make it worse, not more excellent. There is one other provision I want to mention. I am glad the committee included this. It is a statement about the protection of free speech. Willie Morris, who wrote the "North Toward Home" about his days in Mississippi and the University of Texas and New York, wrote an eloquent statement about how the American Association of University Presidents rose up about the political correctness at the time he was a student. That was in the 1950s -- I guess early 1960s. At that time, the political correctness in part of Texas, or all of Texas, was segregationist, very conservative, and oppressive to those who had different points of view. Today, the shoe is often on the other foot. Some deny that, but we know that is true. There are not many conservative speakers at college graduation ceremonies. Often legitimate speakers with different points of view are booed and not welcomed in the academic environment. I testified about this situation before Secretary Spellings' committee on higher education. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record following my remarks my testimony in Nashville last year. Mr. President, I hope my friends in the university community will see in me someone who values higher education, who defends the importance of it in our society, who is working hard to keep our brainpower advantage in the world marketplace, who supports funding it generously, but who also believes that the greatest Achilles' heel of our system of higher education today is political correctness and a failure to take it seriously. Colleges and universities are places where people ought to be allowed to say even outrageous things from the right and from the left. It is not a free and academic environment if you are only allowed to say outrageous things from the left. Without belaboring that point, I conclude my remarks by expressing my appreciation once more to Senators Kennedy and Enzi. This is a first-rate bill. It will help students. It will help our country. It has a great many good ideas in it, and I hope there are others in this body and in the House of Representatives who will join me in recognizing that along with political correctness, the greatest threat to quality of higher education, in my view, is overregulation by the Federal Government, and perhaps over time we can find some sensible ways to give it a little more freedom from this big stack of regulations that piled up over the years.