Among life's few certainties are that many politicians will be pro-education while campaigning only to forget the pledge once elected. But few appear to experience such total amnesia as George W. Bush.
Indeed, given the fact that student-loan debt now averages nearly $17,000 and 39 percent of borrowers face unmanageable debt after college -- according to a report from The Higher Education Project of State Public Interest Research Groups -- it's simply amazing that the Bushies recently proposed eliminating one of the few relief measures available to borrowers, the federal fixed-rate loan-consolidation program. As Terry Hartle, vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council of Education (ACE), explained, "It is hard to imagine a less desirable graduation present for college students than having to pay dramatically higher student-loan rates."
The Bush administration anticipated a $100 billion budget deficit this year, including a $1.3 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program, which provides aid for low-income students. Apparently it thought eliminating the fixed-rate guarantee would remedy the situation by saving $1.3 billion, which could then be used to fund the Pell shortfall. Almost immediately, however, members of Congress from both parties and a slew of education interest groups began criticizing the proposal. The bipartisan outcry forced the administration to withdraw the idea, leaving many shaking their heads over the folly. As Democratic Representative Jose Serrano of New York told The Associated Press, "It's so easy for me to get up in front of the cameras and say, 'Mr. President, this is about the future of our country.' The politics of it I can't figure out because those boys at the White House are pretty shrewd, but this one is a dumb move."
It's dumb because the notion of ending the consolidation program makes the president and Republicans appear anti-education, even though the ACE's Hartle said the GOP has had a good record of supporting the Pell Grant program. Plus, they had every reason to know better. "The Republicans tried to do the same thing in 1995 with the 'Contract with America' and it turned into a fiasco," Hartle explained. "Now they run the risk of doing [it] again by painting themselves into a corner and appearing insensitive to education."
The long-term effects of the Bush proposal will linger, most likely sparking a wave of campaign commercials and rhetoric. The White House cannot afford to seem anti-education given the topic's popularity with voters. Democrats needed to find a campaign issue that resonates, given Bush's high approval ratings and the public's general happiness with the status quo in the post-September 11 world, and the administration may have just handed it to them.
Plus, the Pell grant issue also lets Democrats into tax-cut territory. In a public statement, Congressman George Miller of California made a connection that the Bush administration hoped voters would not. "The administration would not need to consider raising the cost of college for working and middle-income families if it had not insisted on a trillion dollar tax cut for rich people as its highest domestic priority Americans should insist that the administration and Congress fund the Pell program and continue the consolidated-loan program as well." And Democrats should insist that their leadership make a big deal out of the administration's blooper on education.