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Impact of Election 2002 on higher education unclear, but cutbacks possible, says political science professor

November 12, 2002

Election 2002 brought both cheers and jeers from higher education supporters, and it may be months before one gains volume over the other.

Democrat Phil Bredesen's victory over Republican Van Hilleary after a costly18-month battle was viewed largely as a victory for education in Tennessee. Bredesen had the support of both the Tennessee Education Association and Tennessee State Employees Association. And while he has said he doesn't support an income tax, he left the door open for supporting such a tax in his second term.

Bredesen also proposed need-based scholarships that would allow students to attend a public or private institution if the state's voters approved a lottery. The measure was approved handily by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin.

But Political Science Professor Dr. David Kanervo has one concern. "My concern, and this would have been true no matter who won, is that Bredesen has talked about 'managing' us out of our current crisis, about making government more efficient.

"We're already efficient. For him to talk about managing us out of financial problems sounds a little like cutback management. The question is, Where will he cut back?"

Kanervo says higher education is far more vulnerable to the budgetary ax than grades K-12. "You can't ask parents of K-12 students to pay higher tuition. But with higher education, you can always go back and place more of the burden on students and their families. I think there's some danger that's going to happen."

Of course, the lottery, which would pay for college scholarships for deserving students, will cover the cost of tuition, so rising tuition won't be a problem, right?

Not necessarily, Kanervo says. "The lottery might help some families afford higher education who otherwise couldn't. What scares me though is if higher education institutions get more students, will there be adequate money for facilities and faculty and operations expenses to handle the increased number of students?"

Kanervo says that Georgia's experience with a lottery-funded scholarship program demonstrates that relying on the lottery to solve higher education problems can be a bad bet.

"Georgia's HOPE scholarships are based on students having a B average," he says. "Lower-income students tend not to do as well academically. So we know that, proportionally, students from middle-income families will get more of the scholarships." That sometimes means HOPE scholarship recipients might well have gone to college anyway, and it can mean that lower achieving but equally deserving students are ineligible.

Though Georgia's dollars-for-student-scholars programs have had some parents happily spending their kid's college funds, not all are thrilled.

"Some friends of ours in Georgia have said college classrooms are overcrowded, some of the courses seem to have been watered down and there's enormous pressure on high school teachers to 'help' students maintain a B average," Kanervo says.

Though Bredesen proposed that lottery-funded scholarships be need-based as well as merit-based, details of his plan have not been disclosed. Prodded, Kanervo would offer the newly elected governor the following suggestion.

"Put the money in education, but not just scholarships. And make funds available for capital improvements and teacher salaries."

On a national level, the Republican Party's regained control of the U.S. Senate is unlikely to affect colleges directly. But it does give Republicans control of the reauthorization of the law that governs federal student-aid programs.

"Most federal money that goes into higher education is in the form of Pell grants, guaranteed student loans," Kanervo says. "With Republicans in control—and the budget deficit we have—there might be a tendency to not grow those programs much."

Lamar Alexander, Tennessee's new senator, may oppose any attempts to let federal loan programs for students stagnate, however. A Republican and former U.S. secretary of education, Alexander has a history of supporting expanded college initiatives. "Alexander wasn't what I'd call a big spender," Kanervo says. "But he believes in education."

In fact, it was Alexander who started the centers of excellence and chairs of excellence programs, Kanervo adds. "He moved Tennessee somewhat in the forefront of education with those programs."

On the whole, while Kanervo has concerns, he says he's not in despair. "It's just a matter of time until citizens see that investing money in higher education is important.

"It's a sparse era for us, because of the economy and anti-tax sentiments. At the same time, we got the sales tax last year. That may carry us through another three or four years. We're doing OK."