Higher education highlights from the 2018 midterm elections

In Tuesday’s midterm elections, voters handed Democrats control of the U.S. House of Representatives, expanded Republicans’ majority in the U.S. Senate, oversaw a number of gubernatorial changes, and approved a variety of higher-ed ballot measures.

Here’s a look at key results and their implications for higher education.

With split Congress, checks on DeVos are likely, HEA reauthorization is not

With control of the U.S. House, Democrats are likely to ramp up scrutiny of the Education Department and its secretary, Betsy DeVos. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), currently the ranking member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, will have an opportunity to schedule oversight hearings and question department officials—for instance, about the proposed overhaul of borrower-defense rules and the handling of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

The next two years will bring talk of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), The Chronicle of Higher Education says, adding that House Democrats could introduce a bill based on their Aim Higher Act, which was drafted earlier this year. The Democratic majority in the house also “spells the end of current Republican plans” for reauthorizing the HEA, according to Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at New America.

However, “absent serious progress on a bipartisan agreement in the Senate, a new higher ed law is unlikely,” Inside Higher Ed predicts. Rather, Democrats may look ahead to 2020, using the coming months as “a kind of dress rehearsal for 2020 in terms of substantive policy proposals,” Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told Inside Higher Ed.

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Gubernatorial candidates’ higher ed pledges

Many winners of Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections, meanwhile, had campaigned on higher education pledges. As noted by Inside Higher Ed, governors are especially important to higher education, as they “appoint board members and have great influence over appropriations.”

A few highlights:

  • In Georgia, the gubernatorial race (as of this writing) remains undecided, but the incoming governor will “set the ceiling” on spending, thus exerting “an immense amount of control over the higher education system in the state,” The Hechinger Report says.
  • In Illinois, Democrat J.B. Pritzker defeated incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who “was largely blamed for a political stalemate that left public colleges without most of their state appropriations for some 800 days,” writes The Chronicle.
  • In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Republican Bill Schuette and will take office with plans to establish a scholarship program that would cover state residents’ first two years of college tuition.
  • In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers, the state’s superintendent of public schools, defeated incumbent Republican governor Scott Walker, who had slashed higher education funding and was “a thorn in the side of the state’s public colleges,” The Chronicle reports. Evers has pledged to increase funding for public colleges and universities.

For a state-by-state summary, see Inside Higher Ed’s table outlining the gubernatorial winners and their pledges.

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Voters weigh in on higher-ed ballot measures

Tuesday also brought a number of local and state ballot initiatives that “could have critical implications for public higher education,” Education Dive reports. In addition to approving a variety of higher-ed funding measures, voters upheld a Massachusetts law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in public places (including college bathrooms and locker rooms), passed a free-college measure in Seattle, and made it more difficult for Florida’s 12 public universities to increase student fees.

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The candidates: A record number of educators, personal experiences with student debt

This year’s midterms brought more educator candidates than any other election cycle. It also featured more candidates speaking about their experiences with—and plans to address—student debt.

Historically black colleges and universities also had a prominent spot in candidates’ midterm conversations, The Atlantic reports, with Democratic gubernatorial candidates like Andrew Gillum of Florida and Stacey Abrams of Georgia “playing up their HBCU bona fides, and in turn raising the profile of the beleaguered institutions.”

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