Potential cuts to higher education after the presidential election could result in reduced federal funds for U.S. universities—including Duke.

Although higher education has not been a prominent issue in the Republican primary, several candidates have recommended cutting back on federal dollars supporting financial aid and research. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he supports the House Republican budget, which would cut Pell Grant funding by at least 25 percent. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas and Medicine ’61, proposed completely phasing out federal funding for both research and student aid, said Edward King, national youth director of the Paul campaign.

Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, have not articulated specific positions on higher education funding on their campaign websites. Santorum, however, has recently criticized President Barack Obama for suggesting that all Americans should attend a four-year college.

Duke students’ aid packages would not change in the face of more reduced federal aid policies proposed by some GOP candidates, said Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of financial aid.

“The federal aid programs wouldn’t affect our student contributions directly,” Rabil said. “If we lost Pell Grants… we would have to make that money up to keep packaging at full need. When federal aid decreases, Duke uses its own funds.”

If Pell Grants—received by about 11 percent of students—were eliminated, the University would find a way to compensate the difference in aid packages, Rabil added.

Public universities would need to greatly restructure their aid programs if federal aid was decreased, because they have a higher dependency on government grants, Rabil said. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for instance, had to eliminate a tuition grant program in favor of a program that only awards packages to its most needy students after recent state legislation decreased state-granted aid.

“There are other institutions of higher education serving a much lower-income clientele—think community colleges or ‘for-profit’ colleges—where changes in financial aid policy could threaten the very existence of the institution,” said Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy and economics and a specialist in higher education finance policy. “Duke doesn’t really have to worry about that.”

‘Pretty broad’ education consensus

Although Republicans have not put issues of higher education at the forefront of their campaigns, none of candidates are “anti-education” or opposed to making college more affordable for low-income families, Vigdor noted.

“While there’s rhetoric around the evils of federal dollars going to universities, there is pretty broad bipartisan support for those efforts when the rubber hits the road,” added Chris Simmons, associate vice president of federal relations. “Most people understand that investing in students and research is a huge economic and societal priority.”

Looking at the congressional record of some candidates can provide insight into their approach to higher education, Simmons noted. Santorum, as Senator, advocated to increase the maximum Pell Grant and to direct research dollars to Pennsylvania institutions. Gingrich, as speaker of the house, vocally supported research in universities. Romney, however, has no experience in the executive branch or Congress, so it is unclear how he would treat higher education as president.

King noted that Paul—a strong opponent of federal spending—will end government subsidies for student loans and research.

“When a government subsidizes education through loans, it dramatically drives up tuition costs by guaranteeing endless money to institutions, who can raise their price as they so please,” King said. “Regarding grants, government bureaucrats determine what research is funded, and that’s not nearly as effective as letting scientists who understand the specific needs in their respective fields of research make the decisions.”

The Romney, Gingrich and Santorum campaigns could not be reached for comment.

Research on the rocks

Duke’s student aid program would be resilient to conservative policies but the University’s research funding would be in peril, Vigdor noted. Duke is far more reliant on federal research funding—about $500 million each year­. Under Republican governance, funding for basic research is more likely to be on the chopping block than federal student aid.

“Both Romney and Santorum have pledged to cut non-defense discretionary spending, which is about 15 percent of the federal budget in total,” he said. “Research support is one of the biggest items on the list.”

The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation together comprise a larger portion of the federal budget than all federal financial aid programs combined, Vigdor said. Duke is a significant recipient of those funds—although Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin have more than 10 times the number of Pell Grant recipients, Duke receives more than twice as many NIH dollars as OSU and nearly six times as UT-Austin.

Vigdor added that research grants from the NSF, NIH and other federal agencies create opportunities for undergraduates and help pay the salaries of many of Duke’s best classroom instructors.

“Your outstanding chemistry or biomedical engineering professor might one day be lured into private industry if federal research funds dry up,” he said. “Cuts in financial aid would make places like Duke—which have the resources to provide their own aid to students­—more attractive relative to their competitors. Cuts in research support would do the opposite.”