US: Obama and higher education: promises and problems

With a "Yes we can" attitude and a five point platform for higher education, President-elect Obama represents a changing face for higher education and Americans are hopeful. Obama's platform targets loan programmes, access to higher education, community colleges, science and technology, and affirmative action.

Between 2001 and 2010, about two million academically qualified students did not or will not attend college because of the cost. To alleviate this, Obama's platform recommends tax credits and simplification of the current labyrinthine college loan application process.

Student access to bank credit has already withered, creating a trend to more federal lending. A direct loan programme, in which the US Department of Education is the lender, may occur by the autumn of next year, according to David Breneman, an economist and Director of the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

Universities may also find themselves lending money directly to students, but this option is difficult for small colleges, many of which have fewer endowments.

Obama also endorses access to higher education whereby students receive tax credits towards college costs in exchange for community service. Breneman believes implementing such a plan will come to fruition within Obama's first two years.

Although the plan is not yet firmly defined, speculation is that it will mirror the GI bill of 1944. That plan offered tax-free monetary benefits to active and veteran military people while they earned a degree or obtained vocational training.

In addition to improving students' access to credit, Obama wants community colleges to implement more programmes targeting emerging careers. Science and technology research is generating significant enthusiasm in academic arenas because Obama's plan calls for expanded financing of federal research in these areas.

Universities hope to capture money, particularly in the fields of energy and stem cell research. Obama has stated energy is his second highest priority following the economy, so universities anticipate some money for initiatives to implement alternative energy sources.

Since the President-elect supports stem cell research without the restrictions imposed by the Bush administration, universities are optimistic that more federal funds will start to flow. But no-one knows what funds Congress will appropriate for Obama's plan.

US Representative George Miller, Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee said that in the next congress his committee "will dedicate ourselves to improving our nation's schools and continue our efforts to make college more affordable and accessible, so that every student has the opportunity to succeed".

This includes minority students. Obama supports affirmative action to close the economic and educational gaps some minorities experience. But he also believes affirmative action should take into account class as well as race factors.

Breneman voiced a common opinion when he said, "An Obama administration is a good thing for higher education...."

Although much will still fall to individual states, Americans are hopeful.