Public Policy Failures: A Personal Account

Washington -- Of success in higher education policy I've had my share; it's the failures over the years that still rankle. Did I do my best? Given the regrettable current state of higher education in America -- we have slipped far on many measures -- all of us should reflect on where we might have done better.

1. One failure of mine involved trying to encourage private non-profit colleges to serve more lower-income students as part of their missions (for which they are also given tax exemptions). Such students often have better chances for graduation at these colleges, for whatever reasons. By the 1980s, when I was a college association executive, much progress in this direction had already been made. Many private colleges, helped by federal and state student financial grant programs, were enrolling more students from lower-income families than were the public universities. The progress didn't last. The leadership of private colleges at the national association level came under the sway of those who valued elitism and prestige rankings above the charitable aspects of the institutions. Granted, there is much diversity among private colleges, and many do exemplary work, but the national associations in Washington have dug in their heels at every opportunity to prevent sharing of data publicly and to fight implementation of reasonable accountability measures. Worse, this behavior has been emulated by associations of public colleges and universities, undermining the effectiveness of virtually all the programs of the Higher Education Act. These once-admired associations have lost credibility, which has shifted to think tanks that are more honest about how rapidly American higher education opportunity has been slipping compared to other countries. It is no wonder that the nation now senses a crisis in college affordability on top of a student loan debt crisis, and that undesirable higher education gaps have been widening. I regret not engaging the associations more about their direction when I had the chance, both from inside and outside.

2. Another underachievement came in the late 1990s when I was in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the Department of Education. I was the only person in this small office (and one of the few in the Department) who had experience at both state and institutional levels of higher education and who appreciated the importance of federal funding incentives in influencing state and institutional behavior. I was a vocal advocate for matching programs and maintenance-of-effort provisions in federal programs such as the Campus-Based and State Student Incentive Grant programs. I even wrote a paper on how such "cooperative federalism" programs were superior to federal programs that did not work through states and institutions; it was published in Publius, The Journal of Federalism. The following year I had an ally for a time in Deputy Secretary Mike Smith, who pushed OMB to shift more funds to cooperative federalism programs in the budget. OMB went along with only half of the request. It was the last time the programs received any real attention (until recently, when the virtures of "skin in the game" have been rediscovered). Meanwhile, states and institutions have predictably diminished their support for college affordability.

3. A temporary success in which I played a part turned into failure in the misadventure of writing federal regulations for the GEAR UP program. This matching program was established by Congress in 1998 to give disadvantaged junior and senior high school students help in preparing for college. One component was a substantial college scholarship, the intent of which was to reduce the need for at-risk students to borrow heavily or work excessively long hours to pay for college. The Department of Education proposed regulations that required colleges to administer these scholarships accordingly, so that the participating students would have lighter debt and work burdens. National higher education associations uniformly opposed the rules, insisting that colleges had the right to take the federal money but reduce their own support for the students in question so as to leave these students no better off. Their argument was "equity." GEAR UP scholarship recipients, they said, should be no better off than counterpart students who were not in the GEAR UP program. The colleges wanted to take the money but essentially, through the process of displacement, spread it around according to the colleges' own priorities. The Department of Education argued that it would be impossible to evaluate the success of the program if the funds were subject to such manipulation. The night before a showdown over the issue, Deputy Secretary Frank Holleman came over to my office and said he saw no choice but to concede to the united front of six national higher education associations. We went over the issues and arguments. The next day, the deputy secretary and I met with the heads of the six associations. They said if they didn't get their way, they would refuse to take GEAR UP scholarships and would work through Congress to kill the program. Frank Holleman held his ground and sent them all packing, to his great credit, and the federal regulations as the Department had drafted them were promulgated. Several months later, in 2001, another administration came into office and quickly withdrew the GEAR UP scholarship regulations. To my knowledge, no GEAR UP scholarships have ever been awarded, and if they have, it would be very difficult to determine who received the benefits. Who really receives benefits from many federal student-aid programs, given their fungibility, is a problem that has bedeviled researchers for decades. Which is precisely the way the national associations want it.

4. Another disappointment occurred after I retired, when I communicated with the committees of jurisdiction drafting the new GI Bill, which became law in 2008. The way the legislation was being written would not work, I was convinced. I feared the VA had too little experience administering student financial aid and my fellow veterans would not get what they were promised. I saw great confusion ahead and veterans being taken advantage of, which is what happened. The mess has still not been straightened out. It even spilled over to the great disadvantage of non-veterans in that unscrupulous for-profit schools were allowed to count federal GI bill benefits as if they didn't come from federal taxpayers, so as to be able to remain in business under a law that requires these schools to get at least ten percent of their revenues from other than gullible Uncle Sam. This was a windfall to them and kept several of them in existence before state attorneys general and others finally started to catch up with their multiple violations of other laws. Taxpayers will pay dearly for these mistakes. Veterans have been soaked and many are deeply in debt.

I take these public policy failures personally. It's not that I was especially prescient about how these predicaments would evolve, or that my judgment was always better than others, but I had the experience and often the occasion to speak up and yell STOP! I look back and regret not trying to engage others to throw more sand into the gears of these public policy misfortunes as they were happening.