Friday, February 5, 2010

Obama's Higher Education Budget

A story in today's Targum ("Obama lends support to ease college debt" -- not available online) made me recognize that the debate over the President's higher education initiative might help clarify for some students the political dimension of the issues you are addressing in the Analytic Essay assignment.  For more details on the President's proposal (which still has to make its way through the Senate), you might read Paul Basken's "Obama's Budget Makes Education a Major Exception to Austerity" in The Chronicle of Higher Education (which is a useful site for getting project ideas, by the way).  

Basically, the President is arguing that higher education is a national and state priority because of its benefit to society and the economy, and therefore society should bear more of the burden of paying for college (by raising the value of Pell grants, rather than simply under-writing loans that have to be paid back, and making Pell grants an "entitlement program," meaning a permanent part of the budget like Social Security).  

The increase in Pell grants he is proposing is rather small (about $500 each) and he has a method of paying for it (by changing the rules in the way Government under-writes student loans) that will not directly affect taxpayers, so for many on the left this is not really a strong statement that the government should do more to pay for college costs and to keep college affordable.  For example, Senator Claiborne Pell's grandson (see "A Personal Perspective on Obama's Pell Grant Infusion"), Clay Pell, said his grandfather would have been pleased by the President's call to make the grants that bear his name an entitlement that automatically increases every year, but he would also be disappointed by how little of the average college tuition these grants now cover.  

On the other side of the debate, there are those who worry about the effect on the banking industry (not a popular view by any means given the recent scandals over banking practices) or who argue that making Pell grants an entitlement may actually help to speed the increase in college costs (see also here) by making it more possible for colleges to raise tuition.  Interestingly, you will not find any politicians calling Pell grants "a government handout" these days -- at least not in public -- but you can certainly find opinions like that in the right wing blogosphere (see "We should not help the poor go to college" or "Meet the compulsive service Orwellian GIVE act") and in comments in forums (see the thread accompanying one CNN article where one comment shouts: "HOW MUCH MORE MONEY ARE WE GOING TO WASTE ON MINORITY EDUCATION BEFORE WE REALIZE THAT WE ARE ALL FREE TO BECOME AS SUCCESSFUL AS WE WANT TO BE! IT IS POLICIES LIKE THESE THAT KEEP US MINORITIES DOWN! STAND UP FOR YOURSELF, SHOW SOME PRIDE IN YOURSELF, GET AN EDUCATION NOT A GOVERNMENT HANDOUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!")

So the Analytic Essay does ask students to take a stand on these issues, and likely the stand you take will be informed by your politics as by the material in front of us.  But it is important that you try to take a stand.  Make an argument.  Develop your thesis.

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