I listened to Senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz this week during the Wisconsin town halls on CNN. Senator Cruz has promised, if elected, to dismantle the Department of Education. His follow-up was to say that Common Core, which covers K-12 curricula in the 50 states should be abolished. He said nothing about colleges. But I had to think: what if Senator Cruz was elected and he could follow through on his promise?
The first thing to understand is what the Department of Education really is. Its roots go back to 1867 as an agency to collect data about schools for the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. Of course, there was a much smaller government that had fewer responsibilities that the Federal Government we have today. Not to mention that few went to college. The fledgling department was given a budget of $15,000, a pittance even then.
As of mid-2010, the Department had nearly 4,300 employees and a budget of about $60 billion.The current agency, founded in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, combined the functions from the education-related offices of several Federal agencies under one umbrella. These included units that managed and awarded grants, upheld Federal laws related to education, proposed public policy and oversaw the college financial aid programs. The Federal Government had a limited role in K-12 education until 2001, with the passage of No Child Left Behind. Its role in higher education primarily revolves around law and policy enforcement, data collection and the administration of financial aid.
All this being said, there are several things that the Department of Education does not do. I want to clear any possible misunderstandings. The presidential candidates, especially Ted Cruz, are unlikely to help.
The Department does not run colleges. The military academies are the only Federal colleges. They are run by the branches of our armed forces.
The Department does not accredit colleges. This is handled by independent professional and academic associations who review the quality of the educational programs.
The Department neither collects nor services student loans. State departments of education contract this task to one of five private firms, Sallie Mae being one of them.
The Department does not set interest rates for student loans or standards for financial aid eligibility. The highest levels of the agency can proposed their ideas to Congress and the President. However, they have to live with the middle ground where lawmakers and the chief executive agree.
If you are a parent of a college-bound student or a college student, would you suffer if the Department was shuttered? Maybe, if your family is not dependent on state tuition aid grants or Federal Pell Grants to help cover college costs. Otherwise, probably not.
Another agency would administer the financial aid programs or the Executive Branch of the Federal Government would appropriate financial aid dollars to the states. There would likely be agreement to charge the same interest rates for student loans. Since the state higher education assistance agencies may contract with out-of-state firms to collect student loan debts, policies for repayment would likely be the same, regardless of where you lived. Most likely the FAFSA, or something like it, would be an agreed-upon standard form, just as health care coverage codes have become standardized to help doctors complete insurance paperwork.
Some of the responsibilities of the Department can be reassigned within the Federal Government or outsourced. Private companies could collect and present data to the states; the education assistance agencies have their own association. The Department of Justice could enforce applicable Federal laws, especially those that pertain to discrimination and sexual harassment. Colleges, like other large non-profits are already subject to many Federal laws that have nothing to do with academics. These include data security policies, environmental laws, employment laws, and privacy of student information, among many others. But when the responsibilities of the Department become assigned to other Federal Agencies or private organizations, the senior-level administrators, mainly political appointees, would not be needed.
The greater issue would be tuition and fees at public schools vs. grants to subsidize them. Today some states charge low tuition and fees and award smaller grants. Virginia and New York are two examples. Others charge higher rates and make larger awards to the neediest students. California and New Jersey are two examples. There are states such as Florida, Georgia and Louisiana that charge low tuition and have also offered generous merit-based scholarships. Then there is Pennsylvania, which has made it incredibly expensive for students to attend its state schools, offering state grants for less than half the amounts that New Jersey residents qualify while charging the highest in-state tuition and fees in the nation.
Suppose the Federal Government decided to allocate the Pell Grant money to the states. The fairest way to do it would be to consider the needs of citizens versus the charges of the public colleges. While a President Cruz is not likely to order a school such as Penn State to lower tuition and fees, he or his designee could drop the hint by proposing deep cuts in these programs. Most likely a President Cruz would tour the country befriending governors who cut their tuition assistance programs while forcing their public schools to hold the line on charges and costs. I’m sure that he would love to brag about a budget cut that he believed to work.
It will take a vigilant Congress to keep the Pell Grant program going without a Department of Education, not to mention major lobbying efforts by the states. Senator Cruz has shown no love to lobbyists during his presidential campaign, or he has done a great job of pretending to show no love for them.
In the end there will be a need for some Federal agency to work with the state education assistance authorities on financial aid. Unless a President Cruz proposed to zero it out. That’s likely to make him an unpopular one-term president. Ronald Reagan, who he quotes fondly, would have loved to get the Federal Government out of the business of college financial aid. But even he, a popular president, could not do it. I doubt that a President Cruz would have a greater chance of success.
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