Accountability, Bureaucratic Bloat, and Federal Funding of Higher Education

Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, chair of the House subcommittee on higher education, talked with Academe in April about why she believes higher education should not receive federal dollars.
Interview by Cat Warren

Virginia Foxx, a member of the US House of Representatives since 2005, was appointed to chair the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training in January. She started her pre-Congressional career as a secretary and research assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also served at other North Carolina institutions, as a faculty member at Caldwell Community College, a faculty member and administrator at Appalachian State University, and for several years as president of Mayland Community College. Foxx, a Republican, spent ten years in the North Carolina senate before her election to the US House.

Cat Warren: You were recently appointed to chair the higher education subcommittee, starting in January, so I realize these are early days. But could you speak generally about your priorities over the next year?

Virginia Foxx: My main priority is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being well spent.

American taxpayers are demanding more accountability and frugality in how their tax dollars are spent these days. This means any entity that receives tax dollars, including those in higher education, will be impacted as Congress grapples with the record-breaking federal deficits and works to restore a balanced budget.

As the subcommittee considers the many issues confronting higher education, we will always ask whether taxpayers’ money is receiving the stewardship it deserves. We will also ask whether the federal government is playing an appropriate role in higher education when it comes to its involvement in the funding and regulation of higher education.
 
Warren: Because you’ve been an educator and administrator in colleges and universities, you are probably familiar with the American Association of University Professors and at least some of its stances on higher education issues. One of our current major stances is that adequate public funding of higher education means a substantial increase over current levels of expenditures, but your public statements appear to support a decrease of funding.
 
Foxx: Out of every dollar spent by the federal government, forty-three cents is borrowed—money that is added to the deficit and national debt. Over the past several decades the federal government has experienced mission creep. It has moved from pursuing its core constitutional functions to tackling a wide range of issues outside its core competency that are best handled at the state and local level.

Higher education is just such an example. The federal government is not best suited to fund higher education. Rather, states and local communities are better equipped to set priorities, funding levels, and policies. Federal involvement usually leads to more bureaucracy, overregulation, and opaque mechanisms for accountability.

While I support decreasing the federal government’s involvement in higher education, I think that public funding of higher education on the state level is a worthwhile pursuit and that funding levels should be debated and established on the local level, where there is more accountability and educational solutions can be tailor-made. Money now being taken to the federal level should be left at the state and local levels where it can be spent more efficiently and effectively.
 
Warren: You have noted in several forums that you do not believe that the federal government should play a role in higher education and that the government should not be funding education. Could you clarify what you mean by that?
 
Foxx: State and local governments are far better at overseeing, funding, and producing results in education. Federal involvement tends to lead to bureaucratic bloat. Burdensome regulations and one-size-fits-all mandates do more harm than good.

Returning full oversight and power to the communities doing the educating rather than bureaucratic bodies in Washington will give taxpayers more accountability for how their tax dollars are spent.
 
Warren: You were the only member of the House education committee to vote against the final legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) in 2008. What were your reasons for that vote? 
 
Foxx: The HEA was a seriously flawed bill that increased spending, created a multitude of new federal programs, and increased the reach of the federal government into the affairs of higher education institutions.

For example, between 2001 and 2008 federal outlays for higher education nearly tripled. Despite this massive spending increase, the HEA reported by the committee authorized extensive new spending, dozens of new programs, and more Washington control of the daily operation of America’s colleges and universities. In fact, the House bill authorized a $169 billion increase in discretionary education spending over five years, or about $34 billion a year. This made it one of the largest authorized discretionary spending increases in US history. The bill created at least forty-six new federal programs and increased micromanagement of colleges, universities, and the higher education budgets of the states.
 
Warren: You voted against the DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would have allowed undocumented immigrant students brought here as minors to attend colleges and universities. Could you expand on your reasons for that vote? 
 
Foxx: The characterization of the bill as allowing illegal aliens (the correct term according to law) to attend college is not in keeping with the actual thrust of the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act is not focused on allowing illegal aliens to attend colleges and universities. Rather, it is focused on granting citizenship (some would say amnesty) to young illegal aliens who are merely admitted to college or join the military. This is an important distinction and underscores the fundamental reason why I did not support this bill. By granting citizenship to illegal aliens who come to the US as minors, the DREAM Act undermines the rule of law—specifically our immigration laws—and creates additional incentives for illegal immigration.

One of the reasons America is so desirable to immigrants is because we enjoy a strong tradition of the rule of law. Many nations do not enjoy such a tradition. Were we to undermine this tradition by ignoring law-breaking acts, such as illegal immigration, we would be eroding one of the fundamental reasons immigrants are so attracted to the United States.
 
Warren: The AAUP, among other things, supports the right of faculty and graduate students to bargain collectively if they choose to do so. As you probably know, public employees, including numerous faculty members and graduate students, have been protesting throughout the Midwest over the past several months. What has been your reaction to those protests?
 
Foxx: My home state of North Carolina is a right-to-work state that does not allow government workers to unionize. This policy has served the state well. While I favor this policy in North Carolina, I think this is a matter for the states to decide. If some states choose to allow government-employee unions, that is their prerogative; at the same time, if some do not allow public-sector unions, that is also their right.
 
Warren: In late January, the AAUP joined with the Institute for College Access and Success and other higher education organizations in writing a letter to President Obama in support of the new federal student-aid regulations, which would include the so-called gainful employment rule, that might limit federal aid to for-profit colleges. You have stated that you have concerns about that rule. What are your concerns? 
 
Foxx: The gainful employment regulations proposed by the Department of Education are an overreach of federal power that concentrate a sort of arbitrary power over certain institutions in the hands of an unelected few. They are also overly complex while failing to address the issue of the quality of the programs they apply to. Even if these regulations concerning debt-to-income ratios made sense, then they should make sense for every last institution that is a recipient of federal student aid. Singling out a select group gives a pass to some while punishing others. It’s been said that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If these regulations are allowed to stand, that should apply in this situation.

Warren: In one interview, you referred to the newly released book Academically Adrift, noting that “recent research by two sociologists shows very little value added to most of higher education. Students in higher ed don’t gain the kinds of skills that they need to continue in the work world. So I think higher education is going to have to prove its worth in the future.” Could you expound on that statement?
 
Foxx: This study speaks fairly well for itself. According to this book, nearly half of college students do not “demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” after two years of undergraduate studies. This is a scandal. If these findings are accurate, institutions of higher education must examine whether those who are paying for a college education are getting their money’s worth. And those who are paying for college should ask the very same question.

This interview was conducted by e-mail and edited for style.

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