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Legislative update: Obama challenges higher ed

January 30, 2012
Lori Clark

Lori Clark

On a personal note …

I would like welcome Zachary Jordan, a senior at NIU majoring in political science and philosophy, who is interning with our Government Relations Office this spring and will be helping with this column and our legislative updates.

Zach has been in the NIU Honors Program for three years, in the NIU Pre-Law Society for two years, and is a member of the Political Science Student Advisory Committee.

Zach also serves as the membership vice president and is on the executive committee of Alpha Phi Omega. Welcome, Zach!

In Washington, D.C. …

On Saturday, Jan. 21, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk suffered an ischemic stroke. Sen. Kirk remains hospitalized, but his doctors are encouraged by his progress. It is far too soon to speculate on the senator’s return to Washington. Our best wishes go out to Sen. Kirk and his family, and we hope that he has a speedy recovery.

President Obama gave his State of the Union Address Tuesday, Jan. 24, and he discussed a number of issues that are important to NIU and our students, including college/university affordability, student debt, innovation and research.

He also discussed his support for partnerships between community colleges and private sector companies, and the need for streamlining the chaotic maze of job training programs to turn the colleges into “community career centers.” In a follow-up speech at the University of Michigan, President Obama outlined a five-prong approach for higher education.

As described in the Federal Policy Update issued by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, this plan includes:

  • Reforming Student Aid to Promote Affordability and Value: The administration will ask Congress to restructure the Perkins Loan Program, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program (SEOG) and the Federal Work-Study Program to alter the current formulas and direct more of the program funds to institutions that follow a responsible tuition policy and provide good value. This formula also will take into consideration the number of Pell recipients an institution enrolls and what percentage of these students are graduating.
  • Creating a Race to the Top for Higher Education Focused on Affordability and Completion: President Obama proposed funding a $1 billion Race to the Top program for higher education. The funds would flow to states that agree to revamp the structure of state financing for higher education, align entry and exit standards between the K-12 and higher education sectors, and commit to long-term, sustainable state support for higher education.
  • First in the World Competition to Scale-up Innovation and Quality: This initiative, brought up by the president last year, would provide $55 million directly to institutions and non-profit organizations to develop, validate or scale-up innovative and effective strategies for boosting productivity and enhancing quality on campuses.
  • Creation of a College Scorecard: The administration is proposing the creation of a College Scorecard which appears to be in addition to College Navigator and other reporting structures required of institutions. They also will develop a Financial Aid Shopping Sheet that will be required for all schools to make it easier for families to compare college financial aid packages. The administration also intends to collect and report earnings and employment information from colleges so that students will have a better sense of their post-graduation expectations.
  • Additional Federal Initiatives for Affordability for Students and Families: The president called on Congress to maintain the 3.4 percent interest rate for students taking subsidized federal loans, which is scheduled to double on July 1 if Congress does not act. In addition, he requested that Congress permanently extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit which is a refundable tax credit of up to $2,500 for colleges expenses, and he called for the doubling of students participating in the Federal Work-Study Program.

At this point, there is not sufficient detail or information to evaluate the president’s plan. We will continue to monitor this situation carefully.

We also will continue to work with the Illinois Congressional Delegation to ensure that they have the information they need regarding the potential impact of any new legislation being proposed that will have a direct impact on NIU, our students, faculty and/or staff.

Additionally, it is very important our elected officials to understand the many reasons why college is becoming more costly, such as declining state investments in higher education, unfunded mandates, cumbersome and/or duplicative regulatory and reporting requirements, pension liabilities caused by long-term underfunding by the State of Illinois, etc.

Further details should be forthcoming Monday, Feb. 13, when the president details his FY2013 budget.

There has been considerable attention over the last couple of weeks on the issues of online piracy and intellectual property protection.

In Congress, a House bill (H.R. 3261), the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and a Senate Bill (S. 968), the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) were stopped as a result of a firestorm of online protests.

Both bills were intended to strengthen protections against copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. These bills are now being amended by their sponsors to address some of the concerns.

In addition, a new bill (H.R. 3782), the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act was introduced by Rep.Issa which he says delivers stronger intellectual property rights for American artists and innovators while protecting the openness of the Internet; OPEN will be sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in a copyright case – on the same day there was a global online protect of SOPA and PIPA – that could potentially be just as harmful to the interests of scholars, librarians and archivists. In Golan v. Holder, the Supreme Court upheld the changes in the U.S. copyright law made by Congress in 1994.

Many fear that this decision could open the door for Congress to make further changes to the copyright laws that scholars may consider to be even more restrictive, along the lines of SOPA and PIPA.

We will continue to monitor this issue. It is clear that online piracy and intellectual property protection issues will continue to be of concern in the future. The laws and opinions can have a very real impact on education and scholarly research activities and faculty and university intellectual property protection.

In Springfield …

Interior of the Illinois State Capitol Building in Springfield

Interior of the Illinois State Capitol Building in Springfield

The Illinois General Assembly will convene Tuesday, Jan. 31, for the start of its spring session.

Gov. Pat Quinn will make his State of the State speech at noon Wednesday, Feb. 1. The governor’s budget message is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 22. It is anticipated that the governor will focus on job growth and economic development in his State of the State report.

Over the last two months, Quinn has become engaged in the issue of pension reform. As previously reported, the governor has established a panel to look at the issue. More recently, he has indicated publicly that he would like to shift the financial burden of paying for university and downstate teachers pensions to universities and local school districts.

This same position also has been stated by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Minority Leader Tom Cross. This issue may be discussed in the State of the State or, more likely, the budget message.

We will continue to post any new updates on this issue on the State Budget and Pensions website. It continues to be unlikely that this issue will be addressed by the General Assembly before the March 20 primary election.

It is that time of year when there is an onslaught of new legislation introduced in both the House and the Senate, sometimes hundreds of new bills every week.

While very few of these bills ever become law, it is necessary to track and monitor those which might impact NIU, our students, faculty and staff. For example, there are a number of bills that again seek to abolish the General Assembly Scholarship program because of concerns about well-documented abuse of the system.

In the Senate, there is a deadline of Friday, Feb. 10, to introduce any Senate substantive bills, and the deadline for the introduction of bills in the House is Thursday, Feb. 16.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education’s Performance Funding Steering Committee has developed its final recommendation on a performance funding model for Illinois higher education that, by law, must be implemented for Fiscal Year 2013. The IBHE will act on this recommendation at its Tuesday, Feb. 7, board meeting.

More information is available online.

IBHE, again this year, intends to submit a step budget request to the governor and General Assembly based on different levels of state investment. If approved by IBHE, in Step 1, they will recommend a flat or level budget from FY12 funding, with no more than 0.5 percent of the budget set aside for performance funding, approximately $6 million.

The allocation will be based on each public university’s performance averaged over the past three years for the measures established:

  • bachelor’s degrees;
  • master’s degrees;
  • doctoral and professional degrees;
  • undergraduate degrees per 100 FTE;
  • education and general spending per completion; and
  • research and public service expenditures.

Members of the steering committee have recognized that more work needs to be done on the model and the measures; however, this will be the start of an ongoing process.

On a different topic, the Illinois Supreme Court announced a pilot project Tuesday, Jan. 24, that allows for extended media coverage in the circuit courts of Illinois on an experimental, circuit-by-circuit basis.

Reasonable restrictions have been established, such as not allowing jurors or potential jurors from being photographed. Judges also are given a reasonable amount of power to prevent certain portions of trials from being covered.

I expect that it will be quite an interesting spring!

The Voices section of NIU Today features opinions and perspectives from across campus. Lori Clark is director of State and Federal Relations for NIU.