Federal policies and our work at institutions of higher education

AMS President Ken Ribet has issued a statement about President Trump’s statement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He’s joined leaders of other science organizations (e.g., AAAS, APS) in making such a statement, and I am glad he has done so. Most AMS members work in academia and DACA recipients are our students, typically working hard to achieve their goals and dreams of studying and contributing to the scientific enterprise, just like our other students. It is unarguable that American science is as strong as it is due to the nation’s mostly admirable history of welcoming immigrants to work alongside us in our labs, and in our classrooms. This current statement is in line with the AMS history of speaking up for immigrants, and efforts to protect a truly international scientific community.

Along these same lines of concern, Senators Tom Cotton (AR) and David Perdue (GA) have introduced their “RAISE Act” which would reduce legal immigration by half within 10 years. The RAISE Act introduces a “point system”, whereby the government would decide who has “high skills” and would take power away from universities in making hiring decisions. President Trump is supporting this bill, and it fits with another proposal that would affect academia — his promise to scrutinize the H-1B visa program. Additionally, the RAISE Act would eliminate visa preferences for extended family members, and decrease the number of refugees. While the higher education community is largely opposing this bill, it probably has little hope of becoming law.

I think we all know that the federal government has great oversight over K-12 education, but does it really have much influence over higher education? On the ground, at our universities and colleges, one might think that the states have much more influence over higher education. And that is probably true, at least for public institutions.

But, we have the federal government – and Presidents of past in particular – to thank for huge changes to the way higher education works in this country. Here goes, my “proof by example”. Or, maybe you prefer to think of this as “evidence-based” thinking.

First, think of Lincoln’s Morrill Act. Enacted in 1862, this law established the first of our terrific land-grant institutions. It provided each state with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member of Congress from the state. The land was then sold by the states and the proceeds used to fund public colleges that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts. The State Agricultural College in Iowa (now Iowa State University) was the first to be designated as a land grant college. Incidentally, it is not easy to get laws passed – the Morrill Act was first introduced in 1857, passed the Congress, but was vetoed by President Buchanan. At this time, Justin Smith Morrill was a Representative from Vermont and was one of the founders of the Republican Party.

Next, think of the GI Bill. Since 1944 it has enabled millions of veterans and their family members to attend college. It can be argued that this law set the precedent for today’s financial aid model and signals to all that lack of finances should not prevent Americans from attending college nor should it narrow the choice of schools that low-income students attend.

And, as a final example of legislation with a big impact on higher education in this country, we have the Truman Commission on Higher Education, which suggested the creation of a network of public colleges to serve local needs. A national network was established in the 1960s with the opening of 457 public community colleges, and the number has grown to over 1000 today. There is at least one community college within commuting distance of most of the U.S. population, and they educate a large proportion of minority, low-income, and first-generation college students. It might make sense that this vital part of our higher education landscape grew out of hopes of our only 20th century U.S. president who did not graduate from college.

Where are we now? There’s DACA; there’s the RAISE Act; there’s the Department of Education current scrutiny of Title IX which prohibits sex discrimination in education; there’s the administration’s reconsideration of “gainful employment” regulations which have been used to reign in predatory for-profit institutions from taking advantage of students; there’s the reinstatement of year-round Pell grants.

“Title IX”, in case you don’t know, refers to a portion of the Higher Education Amendments of 1927, a set of amendments to the original Higher Education Act. Signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, the HEA has been amended many times and Congress may further amend it at any point in time. Its two central purposes are to (1) strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities; and (2) provide direct financial assistance for students pursuing higher education.

Senator Lamar Alexander (TN) (chair of the Senate committee that covers education, a past president of the University of Tennessee, and a former U.S. Secretary of Education) has stated that his “top education priority this year is reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.” It was last scheduled for re-authorization in 2013 but that has yet to happen. I am looking forward to congressional work on this important legislation. With almost two-thirds of Republican and Republican-leaning voters saying (in a recent Pew study) that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country (mind you, also about 20% of Democrats agree), it is a very good time to re-affirm and re-articulate the federal commitment to higher education.





About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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