Clinton program for college draws doubtful views Initiatives are geared to those who already plan to go, experts say

'Best bang for the buck?'

K-12 plans received more warmly by school officials

February 06, 1997|By David Folkenflik and Mike Bowler | David Folkenflik and Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

It's not that educators are unhappy with the $51 billion "crusade for education" President Clinton announced in his State of the Union address. The money is good, they say, and the attention is even better.

But national and local campus experts and administrators suggest that Clinton's measures are unlikely to accomplish his goal of making it possible for all students to afford college. Instead, they said yesterday, Clinton's initiatives are generally geared toward easing the burden for students who already intend to enroll.

"From the interest of public policy, you have to ask the question: Are we getting the best bang for the buck?" said Morton Owen Schapiro, an economist at the University of Southern California who is also a dean there. "The answer is no."

"I don't want to sound like the skunk at the garden party," said Michael McPherson, president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., who has written extensively on college costs. "I'm pleased and excited about making education a priority."

In sketching out his legislative program for the year, Clinton was also setting a tone for his second term in office, aides said, with an agenda weighted toward the concerns of middle-class Americans. The president called for expansion of Head Start programs and higher standards in primary and secondary education -- a move which brought plaudits from many school officials, but skepticism from others.

Clinton stressed that learning cannot stop after high school.

"Every 18-year-old must be able to go to college," Clinton said Tuesday night. "We must open the doors of college to all Americans."

The president's plan relies heavily on changing the tax system to include incentives for families to spend money on college tuition -- including a $1,500 annual tax credit for two years to cover community colleges, and a tax deduction worth up to $10,000 a year toward tuition payments for students who are drug-free and maintain a B average.

The proposals also would allow parents to withdraw money from their individual retirement accounts to pay for their children's college education without financial penalty.

Clinton has called these initiatives the America HOPE scholarship, drawing on the popularity of a Georgia initiative that pays the tuition of all B-average college students who enroll in state schools there.

The Georgia plan spawned a less ambitious version from Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, for students of families with less than $60,000 in total income. Scholars say Clinton's program is even more limited in scope.

More students of all income groups are attending college than ever before, said Malcolm Getz, an associate professor of economics at Vanderbilt University.

"It is uncertain how many additional students will attend" because of the president's proposals, he said. "We are simply improving the financial situation" of those who would go to college anyhow.

Sandy Baum, chairwoman of economics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., argued that practical political concerns played more of a role in shaping Clinton's higher education proposals than education policy.

Tax credits and deductions tend to aid those who pay more in taxes, although families whose annual income exceeds $100,000 will not be eligible.

"Selling this package was much easier than selling Pell Grants," Baum said. "This tax credit, while it might be a good idea, is not what it's being sold as."

Only after objections from congressional Democrats and college administrators did the White House propose a $1.7 billion increase -- about 30 percent -- in the money channeled to lower-income students through the Pell Grant program. The move would raise the maximum Pell Grant to $3,000 per student and add another 218,000 students to ranks of those who can receive the grants.

For lower-income students, Baum and MacPherson said, any gains through tax benefits could be wiped out by a corresponding reduction in the college aid they would otherwise receive.

Officials more closely linked with kindergarten-through-12th-grade education offered greater tTC praise for the president's address.

"I thought he presented a magnificent array of proposals," said Christopher T. Cross, president of the Maryland State Board of Education. "It was awesome in its scope. My only concern is that there are a lot of balls to keep in the air at the same time."

Most of the 10 items in the president's agenda had been proposed before, a few of them by Clinton's Republican predecessor, George Bush, but this was the first time a president had bundled them and made education his top priority, said Karl Kirby Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

"Clinton sometimes thinks he's the local principal and acts like one," said Pence, "and that's good. It's good to see him using his bully pulpit, and it's good that he drew the line on school aid at the public schools."

As he has in the past, Clinton backed "school choice" in charter schools -- independent schools within public school systems. That he didn't endorse vouchers redeemable at private and parochial schools disappointed some advocates of parochial education.

Douglas P. Munro, chief executive of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, a conservative Baltimore think tank, said the charter school proposal was "half a loaf, but half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. At least we're moving part way toward dissolving the public school monopoly."

As for the idea of national standards, Bob Somerby, a Baltimore comedian and former city school teacher, offered these thoughts: "I love that we're going to raise the standards, but we never say how we're going to meet the existing standards. It's like we've set the high jump bar at 6 feet, and nobody can jump over it. So we raise it to 7 feet."

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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