EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … Education Sector’s Amy Laitinen on the State of the Union and Higher Ed

Amy Laitinen, a former policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Education, is now a senior policy analyst for Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. She spoke with EWA about the surprising amount of higher education content in President Obama’s State of the Union address, the warning he issued to colleges and universities on financial aid and just how divided Congress really is over the reauthorization of ESEA.

1. Education advocates always argue the issue gets short shrift during the State of the Union. How would you rate its content share this time around?

Obviously for the people who live and breathe and die by education every day there can never be enough (in the State of the Union address) but I was actually surprised how much there was, particularly on the higher education side. The president spoke about the skills we need to build America’s future, and make us competitive. It seemed to me there was a lot there was a lot of conversation about how we get there — to support our teachers, for states to increase the rate at which students are attending college, and to improve the completion rate.

Although education is an issue that everyone cares about, it’s a harder one to sell when folks are just focused on the immediate crisis that’s facing our economy. People aren’t willing to look at education as an economic issue. The president really tried to draw those connections.

2. While he didn’t mention the Dream Act specifically, the president spoke about the need to help undocumented students attend college in the United States. But he went right from that statement to a pledge for border control. Should there have been more specifics about how he planned to help undocumented students?

This the tension that is inherent in a State of the Union address in an election year. The president must appeal to his base, who support the Dream Act, and demonstrate his commitment to the immigrant community. But he’s also trying to sell himself to the general public and show he’s not soft on immigration. He has to reach a variety of audiences and give each of them something they can take home and feel good about. It’s a tricky balance. We’ll see what happens in terms of next steps.

3. “Race To The Top” appeared on many of the education buzzword bingo cards for the State of the Union address, and yet the president didn’t actually say it. Why not?

Race To The Top was noticeably absent from the address. It felt like he was shifting toward the things that are on the minds of many Americans– unemployment, skills gaps and the rising cost of college. Trying to tap into what is making people anxious at the moment was a deliberate choice. He wanted to touch on areas he hasn’t really publicly addressed, at least not this forcefully.

4. There were plenty of standing ovations during the address, and some seemed to be on both sides of the aisle. Do you get a sense that Congress is getting any closer to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is now more than four years overdue?

Policywise, there’s a lot of middle ground on education. But given how politically charged the environment is at the moment, that even if people were on the same page 90 percent of the way, it’s really hard for Congress to support the president right now. They don’t want to give him any wins. Unfortunately I think education policy is going to be a casualty of the political process. There’s antagonism on both sides of the aisle. The people who are elected are focused on the political fight to the point that the people who elected them aren’t getting what they need.

5. Was there anything in the State of the Union address that surprised you?

I expected him to talk about college costs, but I didn’t expect him to be so bold. I didn’t expect him to pull out the financial aid guns and tell colleges he was putting them on notice to get tuition costs in line. There’s over $150 billion in federal student aid every year and that’s a huge lever for change that’s really been underutilized.

The fact that he came out with that during the State of the Union was really surprising. I expected him to do his bully pulpit and say everyone needs to do more, and maybe offer a few grant programs to try and get things going. But in a lot of ways he really dropped a bomb. It will be interesting to see what happens with that and how colleges and universities respond.

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.