The gains Republicans made in Tuesday's Congressional elections bode well for for-profit colleges, which are hoping for some respite from a harsh federal spotlight. They are also likely to lead to more-austere budgets on Capitol Hill, possibly resulting in spending cuts for student aid, research, and other higher-education priorities.
Republicans were on track to pick up dozens of seats from Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives as of late Tuesday, well more than they needed to gain control of the chamber. In the Senate, Republicans also gained some seats previously held by Democrats but fell short of the margin they needed to win the majority there.
The results are, in part, a rebuke of President Obama, including among members of the Millennial generation. Young voters, who overwhelmingly favored Mr. Obama in the 2008 elections, have been growing increasingly uninterested in the midterm elections and increasingly dissatisfied with the work elected officials are doing, according to results of a recent poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics. Only about one in four eligible voters under the age of 30 who were surveyed for the Harvard poll, released last month, said they would "definitely be voting" in the midterm elections, a drop of nine percentage points from a similar poll conducted a year ago.
Young adults, under age 30, represented between 9 percent and 10 percent of all voters in Tuesday's election, down from 12 percent in the last midterm elections, in 2006, according to preliminary exit poll data provided by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The group said late Tuesday that it could not yet estimate, though, whether the percentage of young people who voted actually rose, fell, or stayed the same, compared with 2006.
The large number of new members of Congress creates uncertainty about the direction higher-education policy will take over the next two years, with lobbyists saying they don't know much about many of the newly elected individuals' views on college issues. The lobbyists said they are unsure of what Republicans' priorities will be on higher education, how likely they are to follow through on plans to cut spending, and how much either party will be able to accomplish in a divided government.
Shift in For-Profit Debate
The outcome is expected to have a more-immediate effect on the fight over for-profit colleges than on any other federal higher-education policy debate. Having reclaimed the House of Representatives, Republicans could block bills aimed at for-profits and attempt to overturn the administration's proposed "gainful employment" rule, which would penalize programs whose graduates carry unmanageable levels of debt. Republican leaders have said they want to focus on scrutinizing the outcomes and costs of all types of colleges, not just those in the for-profit sector, shifting attention from problems at proprietary institutions alone to issues facing higher education as a whole.
Yet even the most sanguine of the sector's supporters acknowledge that the Republican takeover of the House won't be a panacea for for-profit institutions. Since Democrats have held onto the Senate, they can continue their investigation into for-profit colleges and thwart any Republican effort to overturn the expected gainful-employment rule.
Harris N. Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which largely represents for-profit institutions, said he has been less worried about which party controls Congress than he has been focused on how to win the support of the dozens of new legislators who will be coming to Washington.
Having so many new members presents a good opportunity for for-profit higher education to gain support in Congress, Mr. Miller said. In the past few election cycles, freshman representatives have tended to be more receptive to proprietary institutions than have longer-serving members, who remember the sector's problems in the 1980s and 1990s, he said.
"Those members are going to come in without some of the misconceptions and biases," Mr. Miller said of the freshmen.
David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said some officials are worried that community colleges will be in the line of fire if Republicans expand the Democrats' probe into for-profit colleges to all of higher education.
Community colleges have been criticized for their graduation rates, which are lower than those of two-year, for-profit colleges. But Mr. Baime and others have said that policy makers should not use the same measurements to compare for-profit colleges, which tend to offer a large number of certificate programs, with community colleges, which award many associate degrees.
"Higher education across the board is anxious about having a lot of new outcome standards," Mr. Baime said. "But we stand by our performance."
Republicans' Pledge to Cut Spending
House Republican leaders have laid out some specifics about how they plan to govern. In a "Pledge to America" they unveiled this fall, they vowed to cut government spending to 2008 levels and cap growth of new money for domestic programs. Republicans said they would save at least $100-billion in the first year of their plan to roll back spending. The only programs specifically exempted in the plan benefit seniors, veterans, and U.S. troops.
John A. Boehner, the House Republican leader who is poised to become speaker of the House, said when he announced the pledge that it "offers a new way forward" for the country. The plan would cut spending rather than accelerate it, he said, and put more power "in the hands of the people" by reducing the size of government. "These are the solutions American people are demanding," said Mr. Boehner, who won reelection in his Ohio district by a wide margin.
The document does not specifically touch on higher education, but its budgetary provisions could lead to less money for federal research, student aid, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, among other college priorities. Some higher-education leaders fear a return to the battles of the 1990s, when Republicans sought to eliminate federal money for those endowments.
But spending on Pell Grants, college-preparatory programs, and science has consistently received strong, bipartisan support in Congress. So some advocates of those programs say they are optimistic that Republicans might still spare those areas from their budget cuts, or that Democrats in the Senate would be able to beat back any efforts to reduce those programs' funds.
Mr. Boehner, who was first elected to Congress in 1990, brings to his leadership role significant higher-education-policy experience from his five years as chairman of the House education committee earlier this decade.
In that role, Mr. Boehner oversaw debates about renewing the Higher Education Act. While the law wasn't reauthorized until 2008, after Mr. Boehner had left the committee, the discussions showed him to be a friend of for-profit colleges and student-loan providers.
During those debates, Mr. Boehner pushed for eliminating a distinction between proprietary and nonprofit institutions that would have allowed for-profit colleges to receive millions of dollars in federal funds reserved for minority-serving institutions. And he called for eliminating the rule that prohibits for-profit institutions from getting more than 90 percent of their tuition revenue from federal student aid.
Mr. Boehner also worked to counter proposals by Democrats to expand direct lending.
Those positions put him at odds with the Obama administration and many Democrats in Congress, who are pursuing tighter regulation of for-profit colleges and who pushed through an overhaul of federal student loans this year that largely cut private lenders out of the federal student-loan system.
While Mr. Boehner's positions on higher education are fairly well known, those of the man who is in line to fill his former spot as chairman of the House education committee are more of a mystery. Rep. John P. Kline Jr. of Minnesota has served as the top Republican on the committee for just over a year and has had little involvement with higher education in his time on the panel.
For-profit colleges, though, count Mr. Kline as a strong ally, and he opposed the changes Democrats made in the student-loan program this year. He has said he is against measures that would increase regulations and generally favors a limited federal role in higher-education policy.
"Washington does not always know best," he told The Chronicle shortly after he became the committee's highest-ranking Republican.
Timothy H. Bishop, a Democrat of New York and a member of the House education committee, narrowly held on to his seat in a closely watched race among higher-education lobbyists. Mr. Bishop, a former provost at Southampton College of Long Island University, is familiar with the details of higher-education issues and has been very involved in them, pressing for changes in the student-loan system and advocating more scrutiny of for-profit colleges. He defeated Randy Altschuler, a Republican.
A More-Divided Senate
On the Senate side, Harry M. Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, survived a closely contested race against Sharron Angle, a Tea Party-backed Republican who previously served in the Nevada legislature.
As majority leader, Mr. Reid brokered compromises that allowed the Senate to pass the bill to overhaul student lending. He also pressed for passage of the Dream Act, a measure that would provide a pathway to citizenship through higher education or military service for young people who came to the country illegally and make them eligible for some federal aid. Mr. Reid has vowed to bring up the measure again for a vote in a lame-duck session of Congress planned between now and when newly elected members take office next year.
On the education committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who has been leading a series of hearings that have scrutinized for-profit colleges, is expected to retain his position as chairman. He was not up for re-election this year. Had Republicans gained control of the chamber, Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming would have most likely assumed the chairmanship. As the top Republican on the committee, he has pushed to widen the committee's exploration of for-profit colleges to question the return on investment at nonprofit institutions, too. He was also not up for re-election.
Other education-committee members, including Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, both Democrats, were also in close races. As of early Wednesday, both races were too close to call. Community-college lobbyists consider Ms. Murray one of their strongest supporters.
Community-college officials also closely watched the campaign of Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, a Democrat of Arkansas they considered one of their biggest proponents. She was defeated by John Boozman, a Republican.
One new Democratic face in the Senate, Joe Manchin III, has made improving college completion one of his priorities as governor of West Virginia. He beat John Raese, a Republican. Mr. Manchin, who was named chairman this year of the National Governors Association, said at a governors' meeting this summer that, of all the pressing problems facing state leaders in this tough economy, none is more important than improving the number of students with a college credential.
"We're facing a generation of students that is projected to have lower educational attainment than their parents'," Mr. Manchin said, calling the statistic "alarming."
Looking ahead, college advocates say they aren't sure what to expect from a divided government and whether split control of Congress will lead to stubborn impasses or force pragmatic compromises.
"It depends on how the leadership reads the outcome," Mr. Miller said. "If what they're hearing is that people want less government and gridlock, then that's what we'll get."
On Tuesday night, Mr. Boehner said he was ready to get to work. "This is not a time for celebration," he said. "This is a time to roll up our sleeves, a time to look forward with determination."