The Road Ahead

Following re-election, president staring down obstacles


With a hard-fought election behind him, President Barack Obama now must face a second term of continued challenges, but MSU experts say his attention to higher education likely will fall short of his campaign promises and first-term efforts.

Despite the importance of college affordability on the campaign trail, MSU experts said turning those promises into reality in President Obama’s second term is not high on his priority list — especially among more pressing concerns such as the economy, job growth and the budget deficit.

But the economic recession’s fallout reached many other political issues, including state funding for public universities.

CAROLYN COLE / Los Angeles Times

In the past few years, the Obama administration has emphasized higher education in spurts, expanding federal Pell Grants and extending lower student loan interest rates while watching college costs continue to rise annually.

After Obama secured a second term in the White House early Wednesday morning, he also reiterated his goals for preserving the nation’s strong future and continuing on the economic growth from the beginning of his term.

“We want our kids to grow up in a country where they have access to the best schools and the best teachers — a country that lives up to its legacy as the global leader in technology and discovery and innovation, with all of the good jobs and new businesses that follow,” Obama said.

Economics professor Charles Ballard said the economic downturn was so severe that although more than 4 million jobs were restored early in Obama’s term, it’s merely “decent” growth and hasn’t made up satisfactory ground for many looking for work — including young college graduates.

“We have a growing economy,” Ballard said. “The challenge is to translate that into jobs for the people that are unemployed. That’s not a challenge that’s going to be fixed in the next four years fully.”

Economy of education
Half a century ago, Michigan’s economy was driven primarily by manufacturing, stemming from deep roots in the auto industry.

Although the fraction of economic growth that comes from manufacturing has been on a steady decline as technology has improved, diversified higher education never was something the state valued, Ballard said.

“We’ve got a sector in decline, and we’ve got a hangover from a culture that didn’t value education,” he said. “It’s a double whammy that is going to create challenges for Michigan for many years to come.”

The problem now is that Michigan’s economy is relatively undiversified compared to other states, leaving a mismatch between the skills the economy could use and the skills the people have, Ballard said.

“The big issue is the economy,” ASMSU Vice President for Governmental Affairs Dylan Miller said. “Paying off large student debt is dependent upon whether you can gain lucrative employment, and that is not happening for a large number of students.”

Obama and his administration likely will keep higher education funding on the back burner in his second term, but the federal government only has so much power over university funding, College of Education Dean Donald Heller said.

A more drastic option for monitoring state education aid is to require a certain level of funding for higher education or impose penalties for violation, Heller said.

“I think (Obama) will continue to look at ways to make financial aid better for students, from how Pell Grants are structured to paying back student loans,” Heller said.

Universities already have begun relying on some federal grants and loans to substitute for the loss of state funding, assistant professor of political science Sarah Reckhow said.

Public pressure
Ballard said it is a huge mistake to disinvest in higher education when job growth and economic stability depend on it, and with tuition rates continuing to skyrocket, more people are on the brink of deciding whether to attend college at all.

State aid now accounts for less than a quarter of MSU’s revenues, half of what it was 10 years ago, according to the MSU Office of Planning and Budgets.

To Heller, keeping education funding a priority depends on the public speaking up.
“Public pressure on tuition prices isn’t going to let up,” he said.

Miller said he doesn’t expect university funding to be the first order of business in Obama’s second term, despite a heightened emphasis on the campaign trail.

“For something as big and impactful to happen in terms of higher education, it’ll need to become an issue,” Miller said. “Right now … it’s an issue, but it’s not an issue that’s being discussed at that level.”

ASMSU travels to Washington, D.C., at least once a year to discuss higher education funding with other Big Ten university student leaders and congressional staff, but instantaneous changes to education policy are unrealistic, Miller said.

“He really trumpeted the reforms he made as both political goals when he was elected and on the campaign trail, but I think there’s other items on the agenda that are likely to dominate,” Reckhow said.

Until the economy rebounds completely and unemployment lessens, the supply of people with a college education likely will shrink, Ballard said.

“I use a medical metaphor: When there’s a massive coronary, even if the patient survives, the patient isn’t going to be running the high hurdles any time soon,” he said.

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