COVER STORY: Outlook 2011By Paul Bradley
Dream Act Likely To Be Pushed Aside as GOP Eyes Budget Cuts
C O V E R S T O R Y
Dream Act Likely To Be Pushed Aside
By Paul Bradley
When the Dream Act died, dozens of immigrants wearing graduation mortarboards watched from the Visitor’s Gallery of the U.S. Senate, their glum faces betraying their deep disappointment.
In other immigrant-heavy communities, like Los Angeles, immigrants watched in dismay as the Senate proceedings unfolded and the Dream Act went down on a procedural vote.
An effort that would have given hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants a path to legal status if they enrolled in college or joined the military was doomed when Republicans refused to let it come to the floor for a vote. The final tally was 55-41 in favor, a majority, but five votes short of the required two-thirds margin.
The immigrant students were not alone in their disappointment. The legislation long has been a top priority of the American Association of Community Colleges and its members. The colleges educate significant and growing numbers of those who would have benefited from the DREAM Act.
The vote, the AACC said in a statement, “while not surprising, is highly disappointing for community colleges nonetheless, particularly because the House of Representatives passed the bill for the first time earlier this month. AACC will continue to push Congress to pass this important legislation.”
The setback was a deflating capstone on a roller-coaster year for community colleges, which saw their status greatly enhanced during 2010, becoming an essential part of the national conversation about education. But they also were being squeezed by rapidly increasing enrollment, greatly diminished financial resources and ever-expanding expectations.
President Obama promised his administration would not give up on the DREAM Act, signaling that he could try to revive it in 2011. “At a minimum we should be able to get Dream Act done. So I’m going to go back at it,” he said.
“It is disappointing that common sense did not prevail,” he said in a statement. “But my administration will not give up on the Dream Act, or on the important business of fixing our broken immigration system. The American people deserve a serious debate on immigration, and it’s time to take the polarizing rhetoric off our national stage.”
But most political observers believe that as 2011 begins, the outlook for the DREAM Act looks bleak. Republicans now control the House of Representatives and have narrowed the Democrats margin in the Senate. Congress is now populated with many newcomers elected on a platform of tougher immigration enforcement.
They’ll be led by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who will chair the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who is expected to chair the committee’s immigration subcommittee, both of whom have vowed to take a hard line on immigration and oppose the DREAM Act.
Republicans said the measure would reward violators of the country’s immigration laws and encourage new waves of illegal immigration. They criticized the measure as lax in allowing some lawbreakers to gain citizenship, and decried the requirement that Dream Act beneficiaries obtain two years of college education or military service set the bar too low.
More broadly, the outlook for community colleges in 2011 is being tempered by continuing budget gaps in the states, and by a new Congress intent on cutting spending and slashing the federal deficit.
David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, said this might be a year where colleges struggle to merely hang on to what they’ve already got instead of pursuing new initiatives.
The current Congress is likely to be dominated by pressures to reduce spending, he said. Speaker of the House John Boehner has said the federal government should return to 2008 levels of funding, which would mean $100 billion in spending cuts.
“There are going to be tremendous pressures to reduce spending,” Baime said. “There is a commitment among Republicans to bring spending to 2008 levels. We’re intending on putting a lot of time and effort into protecting our students and protecting our campuses.”
Money and finances are expected to be of chief concern for community colleges and their supporters during the current Congress.
“Despite the fact that there are some green chutes of recovery in the economy, no one is expecting it to come roaring back anytime soon,” Baime said. “We are going to have to fight and scrap to keep what we have.”
At the state level, community colleges are expected to face new budget cuts as the economy continues to sputter.
In Washington state, for example, Gov. Chris Gregoire unveiled a two-year budget plan that uses a mix of cuts to state programs, suspension of voter initiatives and use of the state’s “rainy day” fund to patch a projected $4.6 billion deficit, according to the Associated Press.
Higher education would see across-the-board budget cuts of 4.2 percent at both four-year schools and community and technical colleges, saving the state $102 million. The cuts could result in fewer classes being offered, larger class sizes and fewer faculty positions.
Gregoire’s proposal would allow colleges and universities to raise tuition for resident undergraduates at set amounts. For example, a student at a community college would see an increase of $280 in fiscal year 2012, followed by a $305 increase in fiscal year 2013.
“We have had to cut the unthinkable to prevent the unbearable,” Gregoire said.
“I hate my budget,” she said, tearing up toward the end of her press conference, according to the AP. “I hate it because in some places, I don’t even think it’s moral.”
Similar scenarios are unfolding in other states. In North Carolina, spending cuts to close a $3 billion budget gap could mean layoffs for faculty, increased class sizes and reductions in the number of courses offered. In California, facing a $28 billion budget cut, educators have been warned to brace for more budgets cuts. The state’s K-12 and community college education budget has been slashed by $7 billion over the last three years.
Pell Grant Uncertainty
While most funding for community colleges comes from state and local sources, the chief federal financial aid program for needy students — Pell Grants — faces uncertainty and will be closely watched by higher education advocates.
The program received a boost at the end of 2010 when a compromise to fund federal government operations through March included funding to close a $5.7 billion funding gap for 2011. The funding will keep the maximum benefit at $5,550 per eligible student. Without the additional funding it would have meant a reduction of about $850 per student.
But the future of Pell Grants and other higher education grants remains uncertain with talk of deep federal budget cuts. Pell provided more than $32 billion in aid in 2010, and anticipates an $8 billion budget shortfall in 2012, due in large part to an explosion in need-based financial aid applications.
Under legislation passed by the last Congress, Pell is scheduled to receive an extra$36 billion over 10 years. But that level of funding might be in jeopardy as Republicans look to cut spending.
Pell Grants traditionally have enjoyed bipartisan support because it helps needy and middle-class students and has a large political constituency. But college officials were alarmed when House Appropriations Committee ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., characterized the need-based program as a financial bailout.
Pell Grants, he said in a statement, are “a perennial priority of the House Democrat leadership,” adding “Democrat majority will cap off the year with yet another massive spending bill that will force our nation into further deficits and debt.”
Baime said Lewis’ stance misconstrues the program.
“I think you can have a fight about the level of assistance, but the shortfall was caused because we didn’t put enough money into the program,” Baime said.
Community college advocates are also closely watching whether House Republicans will attempt to roll back new regulations on for-profit colleges in 2011.
The for-profit sector came under heavy criticism in 2010 for dubious recruiting practices, high student loan default rates and low graduation rates, and the federal Education Department has called for tighter regulations.
A DOE proposal that would limit how much cash for-profit colleges can get from federal sources is being resisted by the schools. The proposed restriction would tie eligibility for federal student-aid programs to graduates’ incomes and loan-repayment rates.
The for-profit colleges are aggressively fighting back. In 2010, for-profit colleges more than doubled their spending on lobbying to fight the regulations, which they say threaten the industry. Ten education companies and their trade association spent $3.8 million on lobbying in the first nine months of 2010, according to data compiled by the Bloomberg News Service.
The for-profits are expected to get a receptive audience in U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., new chairman of the newly-renamed House Education and Workforce Committee, formerly called the House Education and Labor Committee. Kline has been vocal in his opposition to the regulations.
Kline recently told reporters that he believes that all colleges — nonprofit and for-profit alike — should be required to disclose graduation rates, costs, and graduates’ debt burdens to all applicants. He said he is looking at ways to stop the gainful employment rule, which is scheduled to go into effect in 2012.
“At the very least, you need to push this thing back,” he said. The rule has been getting “an enormous amount of pushback and getting it in a bipartisan way.”
Kline said the rules could be blocked by including language in a spending bill that would prevent the department from implementing it. But on the Senate side, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a strong critic of the for-profits, is certain to oppose such a move. Harkin heads the subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that allocates funds for education, health and labor programs
Harkin has also said legislation might be needed next year to rein in the schools. Kline said he would vigorously oppose such legislation.
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