Left Out

Aiding the Middle Class

Gore Vidal once said that the American political system has two right wings. Today's American left, or progressive element, could well adopt this as its slogan for 2000. At the recent Democratic convention in Los Angeles, they expressed—through a series of inflamed street demonstrations—their considerable displeasure at being, so to speak, left out of an increasingly centrist Democratic Party. Higher education fiscal policy is just another arena in which Democrats are starting to look more like Republicans, and radicals are losing clout.

This year's Democratic platform announces: "College Education and Lifelong Learning for All . . . We should make a college education as universal as high school is today." This sounds pleasingly progressive at first, but when you look more closely at how the Democrats plan to achieve this goal, it starts to look irritatingly—well, bourgeois.

Two of Clinton's programs, which Gore plans to maintain, the HOPE Scholarships and Lifetime Learning, are tax credits, which means, essentially, that they'll assist only people who are making enough money to have saved something for college already. To benefit from the HOPE Scholarships, for example, you have to shell out $2000 of your own money first. The criticism here is that while this boosts middle-class folk, it does nothing for the truly needy, most of whom don't make enough to even pay taxes, and none of whom could scrape together $2000 if their lives depended on it.

Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, calls the Democrats on the carpet for this: "If the high school/college analogy were serious, then the Democrats would propose universal, publicly funded higher education paid for out of taxes."

Pell grants (need-based government stipends) can get the poor only part of the way, given today's tuition inflation. Short of Lind's proposal, some have suggested that if Democrats really wanted to make higher education available to all, instead of rewarding people who are already on their way to affording it, they'd dump the millions they've allotted for tax credits entirely into Pell grants. This would then raise the amount (by as much as $1000 or more) each truly impecunious student would receive.

But Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy development at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, sees two problems with this approach.

First, she rejects the notion that the middle class is undeserving: "People making $30,000 or above may be middle-income, but they're still struggling. They need help, too." Moreover, she says, middle-class tax breaks do benefit the poor indirectly. "If," says Flanagan, "we can get people in the $50,000-to-$60,000 income level really planning ahead and saving for their kids' college, that takes the pressure off colleges to provide middle-class financial aid and allows them to fill more of the cup for the needy students."

Second, while "everybody in higher ed would welcome an additional $8 billion in Pell grants," as Flanagan concedes, budgetary red tape in Washington makes this virtually impossible to maneuver. "There are ways to rewrite the budget act, but you're talking about changing the structure of committees in Congress. The budget rules are such a large package that keeps a cap on spending that they're not likely to be tampered with." Besides, Flanagan says, tax breaks are a necessary quid pro quo. Congress has always been more inclined to enrich Pell when it could promise something to its middle-class constituency. "It's truly a rising tide that lifts all boats. That is the practical political reality that we deal with."

Of course, there's always the Green Party platform, which advocates Lind's plan: "We support tuition-free post-secondary (collegiate and vocational) public education." But how realistic is this? The desirable and the possible have to meet somewhere, and to a large degree, in the Democratic platform on higher education, they do. Sheldon Steinbach, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education, says of the party's proposals: "It's certainly heading in the right direction. You pick your support where you get it. Often you don't have a choice as to where it's going to come from and where it's going to go to." When I remind Steinbach that the Green Party has a lot to offer—i.e., that it supports universal higher education—his reply is duly cynical: "Yeah, well, don't we all."

 
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