President of the College Harry C. Payne recently finished a year as Chair of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, an organization Williams and its NESCAC and Ivy League counterparts belong to, as well as many other private institutions of higher education in the country.
Payne describes his responsibility in that position “as volunteer work, just as hundreds of members of our community find the time for such extra work because it is important.” His work though, extends to the entire nation.
NAICU achieves its nation-wide scope both by representing 900 independent colleges and universities and by applying pressure to the machinery of the U.S. government to help to shape NAICU policy. NAICU supports undergraduate education by attempting to stabilize and enhance government financial aid. Its main focus rests on bolstering federal student aid programs, namely Pell Grants and Stafford and Perkins Loans. NAICU also lobbies to reduce the regulatory burden imposed by these programs.
The fact that Williams is supported by a large endowment does not mean that it can be removed from Congress, the Appropriations Committee and the Tax Code. Colleges still need to offer students financial aid so their classrooms will be filled; aid which, in many cases, comes directly from the federal government.
Payne said “federal funds, in the form of loans and direct grants to students are a very important part of our ability to have full need-blind admissions and to pursue economic diversity.” In the event of large cutbacks in federal funding, Williams would juggle its budget and to compensate for the lack of aid. Yet for other schools, with smaller endowments and more students from low-income families, cutbacks could well be their death knell.
Even if federal government policies do not directly threaten need-blind admissions at Williams, the policies have become markedly less sympathetic towards private institutions over the past decade.
In fact one Williams professor commented, “I don’t think it’s paranoid of me to say that private institutions are under attack.” For Williams, the ratio of aid given between grants and loans has changed from 60% as grants and 40% as loans, to 40% as grants, 60% as loans. The overall federal aid given to Williams has decreased from 27% in 1981 to 6-7% today.
This hostility is evident on a national level in the congressional budget of 1994, which proposed a 33% cut of federal aid programs. In such a harsh atmosphere, the need for NAICU and other such associations originated. In part a result of the efforts of NAICU, the 1996 Congress showed bipartisan support for these programs.
Payne said, “Almost all in Washington would say this association has been the most effective and powerful advocate for these programs, as it is able to call upon hundreds of presidents, thousands of board members and â€” most important â€” millions of parents and students.”
Currently, the territory under negotiation has shifted from the issue of funds cutbacks to their distribution.
Payne explained. “Recently, the association has focused on the Tax Code as, for the first time, the Code was used massively in the past congress to enhance access to education through the ‘Hope Scholarship,’ ‘Lifelong Learning Credits,’ and ‘Education I.R.A.s.’”
This shift is giving rise to concern regarding those who will now actually receive aid for undergraduate education. In the spirit of the new balanced budget, the aid programs have been moved from the appropriations committee to the Tax Code, so that families receive tax cuts to offset the cost of education, instead of need-based grants or loans. This results in tax relief for middle-income families at the expense of lower-income families towards whom fewer aid programs are targeted. Those representing higher education are compelled to support this shift in emphasis rather than risk losing the $40 billion tax cut to other interest groups, although they give voice to these concerns simultaneously.
Clinton’s administration is increasing the Pell Grant program from $2,400 to $2,700 this year and then $3,000 next year in order to compensate for this concern. Even so, the Pell Grant still falls short of the amount authorized years ago by an authorization committee of congress â€” $4,000.
Payne enumerated some reasons for the general hostility towards private institutions. “I think generally America has indulged itself for more than a decade in assaulting all of its institutions â€” an atmosphere of negative politics and negative journalism. Higher education is part of that. The specific issues which have been at the center are cost, price, efficiency. As the most prestigious school greatly increased costs, and hence tuitions, this has led to concern and anger. Often the public misunderstands the role of financial aid in all this and does not realize how varied higher education is.”
Payne believes as the business world becomes both more varied and less stable. “The academic world of tenure, academic freedom and teaching loads has become much more suspect.” Payne also said the neo-conservative critique of campuses regarding issues such as affirmative action and the value of new areas of studies such as Women’s and African-American studies, among others, also contribute to the prevailing attitude of suspicion.
Despite this, President Payne remains optimistic, saying of his service as chair, “I did find, however, that this service has taught me an enormous amount about public policy, legislation and American politics. It has fortified my sense that the system really can work if you are willing to work hard and work the system.”
He added, “I should say that, as I emphasize the themes of civic engagement on the campus, my own service provides, I hope, an appropriate example.” Payne’s service does correspond to his belief that strengthening the civic virtues is a central mission of liberal arts colleges and that the “ivory tower” mentality should extend only insofar as colleges should remain nonpartisan themselves, while providing a place which encourages civic engagement. Even while articulating these ideals, he noted that sometimes colleges cannot remain nonpartisan when choosing the path they take, such as enacting policies of affirmative action.