FURTHER cuts in federal aid to higher education can only result in the unwise strategy subsistence farmers sometimes employed - eating the seed corn needed to plant a crop in the next season. States have been busily cutting higher-education appropriations or at best grudgingly straight-lining their allocations to public colleges and universities. Unfortunately for needy college students, the federal government is doing the same.
The Bush Administration and its allies in Congress seek to chop as much as $50 billion from the budget to accommodate additional costs of the Iraq war and aid to hurricane-stricken areas of the Gulf Coast. The theme in the nation's capital seems to be "All helmets and no brains." During the summer, momentum built among majority Republicans for cutbacks in student scholarship aid. Now the House Committee on Education wants to cut $15 billion more from a federal educational entitlement allocation of $37 billion.
These funds are used by lenders to keep a ceiling of sorts on student loans, repayments of which are onerous enough as it is for many students in straitened economic times. Although some GOP lawmakers have balked at some of the proposals, including cuts in student aid, one cannot predict what Congress will finally do about them.
Meanwhile, a record number of students are expected to graduate from high schools next year, and college enrollment is expected to rise by 15 percent, with four out of five of those additional students being members of minority groups. One out of five students lives below the poverty line, and the lids on college aid and loans work a special hardship on many young people, even as college costs keep rising faster than inflation.
This should be a time for a generous college-aid program, one that should rival in scope some of the ambitious federal higher-education programs of the past. It is ironic that even as K-12 education outcomes continue to lag behind those of many poorer countries of the world, members of Congress, awash in a sea of budgetary red ink, slash higher-education spending, and state legislatures balance their budgets on the backs of institutions of higher learning and the students seeking to improve their career opportunities and meet the challenges of a global society.
It continues to be a fact of life that the political community's response to the needs of higher education, long the jewel in the crown of the American education system, seems to play exactly into the hands of those who wish us ill.
It is as if Osama bin Laden were the guiding hand behind the congressional committees dealing with higher-education aid.