Debating Resources for the World since 1994


Doyle Srader, Arizona State University
Robert Kraig of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

During the last decade or so, Federal Financial Aid has come to the fore as a major issue in national politics. Once a relatively quiet policy backwater on the Washington policy scene, its controversies now draw national media attention. It has been a significant issue in the last two presidential campaigns, and is now part of the standard stump arsenal of Congressional candidates from both parties. The elevation of the issue is connected to the increasing importance, actual and perceived, of college education in the emerging global economy. It is also a product of middle class justifiable anxiety that college costs are out of control.
The rapidly escalating profile of this federal program is unsurprising, given its immense scale. Federal Financial Aid is perhaps the single biggest transaction between government and academy:
Federal support for research primarily affects a couple hundred major research universities; Title IX has its principal impact on approximately 300 institutions with Division I athletic programs; affirmative action in admissions is, of course, primarily relevant only to the 300 or 400 selective colleges and universities. Institutions in these three categories - research universities, Division I athletics, and competitive admissions - tend to be an overlapping group...for example, Duke, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Michigan. The point is that while relatively small subsets of institutions feel the brunt of federal policy in these and other areas, all 3,880 of them - with a handful of exceptions - are significantly impacted by federal student aid policy. (Wolanin, 1998).
Wolanin concludes that during the current academic year, the federal government is making available"nearly $ 50 billion in aid, about 75 percent of the aid available from all sources. Approximately 40 percent of all students in American higher education will receive federal financial assistance."
The wide-spread belief that a college education is essential to success in a global economy that rewards skills is backed up by demographic data. According to a report by David Mortenson, released in May of 1997 by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, workers with less than 5 years of college education are rapidly losing economic ground. The income gap which has been widening since the late 1970s, is thus closely tied education levels.
At the same time, not surprisingly, overall college participation rates have reached record levels. On the surface, this would seem to indicate that the current financial aid system is working. But there are ominous trends in the demographic data. Increased college participation has been concentrated in the top to quartiles of the income scale. In fact, the participation rates for students in the bottom quartile, and for minority students generally, have not increased since the mid 1970s. These numbers are even worse if persistence rates are factored in. Many more poor and minority students drop out.
The trends in college participation, and the relationship between education and life-time economic prospects, when put together, suggest that the current college system is a vehicle for accelerating economic inequality. If current trends are projected out over the next several decades, it is not a stretch to project a Brazilification of the American economy: that is a huge and social destabilizing gap between the haves and the have nots.
The political dynamic of financial aid policy, however, has not encouraged a focus on families who are being denied access to college for financial reasons. The Clinton Administration, in tune with the ideological transformation of the Democratic Party that took place during the 1980s, has treated financial aid as a middle class entitlement. The administration's first major initiative in 1993 was direct lending, which was a new delivery system for guaranteed loans the primarily benefit the middle and upper middle class. The administration did not propose large increases in the Pell Grant, which is by far the most important financial aid program for poor families.
Direct lending did have some potentially redistributive features, such as income-contingent repayment. This cannot be said of the large higher education initiative that came out of the 1996 campaign: the Hope Scholarship. Part of the problem with the idea is intrinsic to the use of tax policy to advance social goals. But the structure of the Clinton proposal made matters worse. This tax credit was made non-refundable, which meant its benefits went almost exclusively to families that paid significant federal taxes. Those who benefited most made $50-$70,000. Moreover, other federal aid such as Pell Grants count against the tax credit, assuring that working families making less than $30,000 will not benefit. Throughout the campaign, and for months afterwards, the President claimed this policy was to help those who could not afford college. Finally, under fire from the left and right, the administration conceded that the program was designed to reduce the cost burden on middle class families, who were likely to send there students to college regardless.
Whether or not one agrees with the direction of financial aid policy, it is clear that it is an area of policy pregnant with large social and economic implications. It has to do not only with the quality of the workforce we will have in the 21st Century, but how social and economic resources will be distributed. Many doubt that republican forms of government can be maintained under conditions of massive social and economic inequality. This is a question that will only be answered in the long-term, but for now financial aid has become a fertile ground for policy formation. Conservatives who long tried to ignore the Clinton position that a high skill workforce was needed to compete in the global economy have now begun to adopt this logic themselves. Indeed, they found common ground with the Administration in the near unanimous reauthorization of the Higher Education Act two months ago. Yet, there is potential division just beneath the surface of events. Not surprisingly, conservative think tanks are beginning to produce starkly different policy solutions. Indeed, they are much more likely than the Democrats to focus their fire on institutions of higher education themselves. In addition, they are much more likely to propose non-governmental solutions, like the privatization of the student loan programs. The left, for its part, continues to push for a more grant based system. Senator Wellstone, for example, has energetically pushed for doubling the Pell Grant. Progressives are thus cast as conservatives, when it comes to the maintaining the traditional structure of the Higher Education Act. In all, the federal financial aid system has become one of the most important policy battlefields that will determine the shape of the American economy, and indeed American society, in the 21st Century.

Argument areas

In this section, we survey some of the potential affirmative and negative argument areas. Obviously, this projection is based on a very preliminary exploration of the literature, and is difficult to predict with any confidence in the absence of a topic wording. Still, these are the sub issues we've uncovered that have potential application as debate arguments.
The first set of possible affirmatives deal with the nuts and bolts of how financial aid is disbursed. In last year's discussion of the tax reform topic, many argued that debates over which model of cash flow is most appropriate would bore students and drive participants away from the activity. Others replied that they found such issues quite interesting, that the high school health care topic from 1993-94 had been their favorite. Srader (1997) argued that the debate community had too long neglected economic policy, and had emphasized foreign policy and law to the exclusion of students who chose to study economics and enjoyed discussing such issues. The Federal Financial Aid proposal provides many opportunities to discuss such issues, without being limited exclusively to them. To begin with, much controversy, and many proposed reforms, address the problem of how"need"is calculated, what sources of income and included, etc. A large cluster of possible cases deal with what forms of disbursement should be used, including direct loans vs. bank loans, loans versus grants, what percentage of federal work-study, terms of repayment, and the like. Surprisingly, inflation in tuition costs outstrips inflation in medical costs, and there are a variety of proposed solutions being pushed from right-wing think tanks. Finally, in line with the ongoing project to reinvent government, there are proposals to de bureaucratize FFA. Some would like to farm it out to a Mutual Benefits Corporation (MBC), on the model of Visa and Master Card. Another, which actually is included in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act which passed this year, turns part of the Department of Education into a Performance Based Organization (PBO), which means it has a CEO who, in return to loosened rules and higher pay, is only rehired if the organization performs well. Similar to this year's EEOC backlog debates, there exists a huge backlog in the processing of financial aid applications, as many of your students are probably keenly aware of. Finally, much controversy and much brainpower is devoted to the issue of how to police fraud in disbursement of FFA.
Beyond a core of method cases, there are financial aid controversies that are more limited and issue-tied. Many cases carry on the debates about race and gender fairness that have begun this year, but carry the discussion of those issues into another setting beyond the workplace, and one that was discussed as a possible addition to this year's civil rights topic. Scholarships for women and/or minorities are one of the few recruitment measures available to colleges and universities as Affirmative Action in admissions falls prey to the Hopwood precedent. Some FFA programs are structured in ways that create fairness problems: Perkins Loans, Work Study, and the Student Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) are doled out by campus, based on how long they have existed and other arcane factors, rather than by student. Newer institutions with more disadvantaged students are thus often cheated.
Other proposals either give financial aid to particular groups or condition financial aid on particular practices. Substantial controversy exists about grants for prison education, which the Republicans recently succeeded in abolishing. Similarly, conservative commentators call for welfare recipients to be forced out of school and into service sector jobs. Students may now lose their financial aid for being convicted of drug offenses at certain levels of severity. The question of how much and what kind of financial aid should be available for special needs students, including remedial and physically challenged students, has produced its own body of literature. Some have argued that National Science Foundation grants to graduate students are really nothing more than a form of financial aid, and should be governed by many of the same safeguards. Finally, as fans of Northern Exposure are aware, the federal government encourages students to work off their loans by providing service in needy areas, such as by practicing medicine in rural areas, teaching classes in urban areas, etc. One outlier area of controversy is the eligibility of particular colleges and universities to participate in federal financial aid programs. Some such eligibility conditions surround financial management or accreditation, but other conditions are also imposed: recently, Congress passed a law requiring schools to allow military recruiters on campus as such a condition of eligibility.
The crop of negative arguments isn't meager. The logical first set is the cluster of economic disadvantages. Some examples: --Credit Crunch/Credit Surplus DAs. We are talking about $40 Billion per annum now in loans. Any major change, such as to full funding of Pell Grant, will have an effect on the U.S. banking system, interest rates, etc. --Global Economy DAs. One example might be skills Surplus. Marcroecomic implications of having too many well trained people in the economy. - Economic Productivity DA. It can be argued that people learn most of useful skills in the workplace. The more affordable college is, the longer people will unneccesarily stay in school, putting a drag on the economy.
It's one hundred percent inevitable that the same old crop of political disads will put in an appearance, but the FFA topic area could also produce disads about the political climate in the country, such as: --
Political Radicalism DA. If more go to college, especially from underrepresented groups, get unrest such as is common among Asian college students, social instability. --
PC DAs. Colleges are training grounds for authoritarian liberalism. It is thus a bad thing if more go to college. Furthermore, most students now have to work in college. If it were made free, they would have more time for indoctrination. Similar to the Political radicalism DA. --
Evil research DAs. These aren't really about political climate, but they're inserted here because they in some way parallel the PC DAs. It can be argued that a good deal of university research is actually tuition driven. Increased aid thus could lead to more dangerous research on biotech, military stuff, etc --
Foreign students. Extremely good link cards exist which say that colleges recruit heavily from overseas to make up for students going to school at reduced price, because students from other countries often have very wealthy parents who are willing to pay the full sticker price. Changes in financial aid in either direction could change the quotient of foreign students, which could be good or bad.
And the varieties of alternate solvency mechanism counterplans will make for a really tight debate on the details of proposals. This is a topic about efficiency and affordability, much like the health care topic. The debates about the merits of various cost containment systems on that topic became very deep and very detailed, and taught the participants a lot about how actual decisionmaking happens outside the walls of the academy. More radical critiques of institutionalized education, as well as conceptualizing wealth, will also be available as negative ground.

Wording proposals

Resolved, that the United States Federal Government should substantially increase its financial student aid for higher education.

Resolved, that the United States Federal Government should substantially decrease its financial student aid for higher education.

Resolved, that the United States Federal Government should substantially change its financial aid programs for students in higher education in one or more of the following areas: determination of need, institution eligibility, grant/loan mix.

Resolved, that the United States Federal Government should amend the Higher Education Act to substantially expand admission of students to colleges and/or universities.

Resolved, that the United States Federal Government should amend the Higher Education Act to substantially strengthen the regulation of disbursement of financial student aid for higher education.

Resolved, that expanding access to higher education ought to be a higher goal for United States federal financial student aid programs than optimal fiscal management.

A few comments."Financial student aid"was originally"financial aid to students,"but as noted above, many forms of aid are given directly to institutions rather than directly to students."Student aid"is used frequently enough that contextual topicality cards should be relatively simple to find, but clears up somewhat the distinction between aid for students and federal money for such things as research projects. Second, one of the things we should discuss as a community during the topic framing season is the result of the"amend a specific law"topic template. The proposals above include examples of the previously more popular"substantially increase/decrease/change"proposals as well as"amend law"wordings. Finally, the last topic wording is an acknowledgment that the value topic is not dead, that its adherents continue to believe it has a place in the activity. The inclusion of the wording is a springboard for facilitating discussion of that issue.

Conclusion: reasons the topic should be adopted

First of all, this is a campus-friendly topic. As debaters and coaches read about the topic literature, they may learn how to streamline their own quest for financial aid or to avoid pitfalls. They also generate knowledge that's of interest to university administrators, with potential for improved on-campus relations as well as public debates that could attract everyone in the campus community from deans to first-years.
Second, this is a topic that centers controversy on addressing problems of insufficient wealth. To repeat an earlier argument, the debate on race and gender is nowhere near complete, but will not be completed in our lifetime. What's difficult to deny is that the ground has been broken and the dialogue has been begun, even if each issue has not yet received sufficient attention. But income discrimination is still an invisible form of oppression. A prominent shared characteristic of affirmatives will be redistribution both of wealth and of the means of accruing wealth. Negatives will be enticed to question how"wealth"is understood.
Third, it has all the characteristics of a good debate topic: controversial, extremely current, widely written about in the literature with both proponents and detractors deploying an array of arguments. It's also a good relief from recent topics. While this year's topic has some economic strands to it, it's similar to the past dozen topics in that they have economic strands, but are fundamentally about law, or foreign policy, or science, or some other field of inquiry. A topic truly centered on economics has not been adopted in several generations of students. For the sake of balance, and to cater, for once, to the interests of those who are drawn to economic controversy, it's time to adopt one.

Preliminary bibliography

Burd, S. (1997, June 6). System for delivering student aid is flawed, many agree, but what's the solution? The chronicle of higher education, 43J(39), A26-27.

Flynn, D.J. (1997, September 15). Blame federal subsidies for spiraling tuition. Insight on the news, 13 (34), 28-29.

Fossey, R., & Bateman, M., eds. (1998). Condemning students to debt: college loans and public policy.

Gladieux, L.E. (1995). The college aid quandary : access, quality, and the federal role. Washington: Brookings Institution, 97 pp.

Goldstein, M.B. (1997). Financial aid and the developmental student. New Directions for Community Colleges, 81-86.

Hannah, S.B. (1996). The Higher Education Act of 1992: skills, constraints, and the politics of higher education. Journal of higher education, 67 (4), 498-527.

Hossler, D., Lund, J.P., & Ramin, J. (1997). State funding for higher education: the Sisyphean task. Journal of higher education, 68 (2), 160 190.

Mumper, M. (1996). Removing college price barriers: what government has done and why it hasn't worked. Albany: State University of New York Press, 304 pp.

Noll, R.G., ed. (1998). Challenges to research universities. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 217 pp.

Roach, R. (1997, October 2). New political leadership: proposal to promise Pell Grants to 6th graders, Black issues in higher education, 14, 22-25.

Roche, G.C. (1994). The fall of the ivory tower : government funding, corruption, and the bankrupting of American higher education. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 310 pp.

Rosenzweig, R.M. (1998). The political university : policy, politics, and presidential leadership in the American research university. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 201 pp.

Somer, J.W., ed. (1995) The academy in crisis: the political economy of higher education. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 329 pp.