Admins assess higher education plans

It's not a hot-button issue. There are no talking points, Jim Lehrer doesn't ask about it during debates and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden don't snipe at each other over it.

But University officials, from the Allen Building to the School of Medicine to the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid, are scrutinizing the higher-education proposals of the two major presidential contenders.

"Platforms are either intensely detailed or alarmingly vague. If you look at both the platforms, they are alarmingly vague," said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, adding that the platform of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain offers slightly more detail. "They say pretty much the same thing-both platforms are saying pretty much the right things on higher education."

The "right things," from the University's standpoint, are mainly increasing access to higher education and ensuring federal funding for research. And on these points, there is little difference between proposals by McCain and Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama.

For example, both candidates state their support for efforts to make education more affordable, but offer different approaches. Obama calls for an expansion of Pell Grants-federal tuition grants offered to low-income students-and supports creating a tax credit to help "most Americans" afford tuition. McCain would also simplify the aid process and expand lender-of-last-resort provisions for federal loans. He does not discuss Pell Grants, but would instead simplify and expand tax credits for higher education.

Director of Financial Aid Jim Belvin said McCain's plan might have more direct impact at Duke, where the number of Pell Grant applicants is smaller than at large state schools. In fiscal year 2007, just 600 Duke students received Pell Grants. As a flat break, it would assist students across the spectrum equally, as compared to the low-income focus of Obama's proposal.

The University will fight any cut in Pell Grants, said Chris Simmons, associate vice president for federal relations and Duke's main point of contact for government. Duke also lobbied for an increase in the maximum grant amount in fiscal year 2008-a legislative initiative that comprised the first bill Obama sponsored in Congress. Beyond that, Simmons said the main priority was affordability, no matter how it was achieved.

"My simple filter first and foremost is, is it good for students?" he said. "There was some great expansion of student aid and especially of tax programs during the [Bill] Clinton administration, but there's been expansion of Pell Grants in the [George W.] Bush administration."

Research funding and regulations

Much of Duke's research is funded with federal dollars, and encouraging appropriation to agencies like the National Institutes of Health is one of the Office of Federal Relations' major tasks. Schoenfeld said the resignation of NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni next month and the Wall Street collapse further complicate the usual uncertainty of an election year.

"Typically transition years are a lot of uncertainty and chaos anyhow, and now it's going to be amplified by the events of the financial crisis," Schoenfeld said. "You have to be aggressively conservative or conservatively aggressive in your expectations."

Questions such as stem-cell funding are important at medical research hubs like Duke-both candidates support embryonic stem-cell research, with Obama offering the most detail on the topic.

Simmons also noted the vagueness of both platforms, but said Obama's stood out as more detailed on research. Overall, Duke officials said they worry about increasingly stringent standards for reporting of information to the federal government, on issues ranging from on-campus crime to endowment spending.

"Higher education in general has been very concerned about the rising tide of regulation," Schoenfeld said. "The amount of regulation and reporting that we have to do is probably unparalleled in any industry."

In the last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has led the most visible regulatory charge against higher education, a push to examine how universities spend endowments. In the spring, several universities pledged to boost their endowment spending and others-including Duke-reported their spending practices to Grassley, and Simmons said he now expects there will be no legislation on the issue.

Duke jumps into the election fray

The University has largely avoided other campaign issues that affect higher education, such as affirmative action, Simmons said.

But Duke has taken pains to be more than a sideline spectator in the race.

For example, President Richard Brodhead is one of four chairs of an election task force created by the Association of American Universities. In that capacity, he leads efforts by research universities to place their priorities and needs on the political radar screen.

"What that group is doing is to articulate the importance and role of research universities and to represent the research universities to the campaigns," Schoenfeld explained.

Brodhead also met with representatives from Obama's and Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaigns. Those meetings have focused on specific policy questions, and the University has to remain officially nonpartisan, Schoenfeld said.

"We want to make sure that the leaders and policy-makers know where Duke stands on issues," he said.

A meeting with McCain's campaign fell through, but the University is working to schedule further meetings with both campaigns.

"We're still actively pursuing that, first because it's important, and second because we believe Duke has something to offer both candidates," Schoenfeld said.


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