Felician president discusses federal legislation targeting higher education

The periodically re-authorized Higher Education Act of 1965 boosts resources for colleges and universities and provides financial help for students. A congressional committee has taken steps to re-authorize it again, but this time to reform it as well. Felician University President Dr. Anne Prisco shared her views with Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.

Aron: You wrote an op-ed in the Bergen Record and NorthJersey.com in September in which, if I read it correctly, you were saying that Democrats and Republicans view higher education differently these days. What did you mean by that?

Prisco: What the polls were indicating, and it just seems counter intuitive to all the reality that we know, is that Democrats are supporting the value of higher education more than Republicans are overall at a time when we know the value of higher education is undisputable. At Felician, we’re so proud. We are the third private school in the state for the return on investment. We know on average in this whole country if a student pursues higher education, any individual, they’ll make on average a million dollars more over their lifetime than someone who doesn’t go to school. So, the value of education, to be a better citizen, to be a contributor to society, to have more choices about what careers you can pursue is what education has always been all about and continues to be important.

Aron: Well, how does the Republican tax bill in Congress right now suggest that Republicans don’t value higher education?

Prisco: Several of the provisions in the tax bill, and we won’t see the new rewrite until tomorrow [Friday], actually create either tax disincentives, so they are taking tax credits away for things that existed to encourage people to go school, or actually creating new taxes. So some of the provisions are actually going to create more of a disincentive or make it more expensive for low- and middle-income people to pursue higher education.

Aron: Well, they’ve taken out the piece where graduate students would have to pay income tax on their otherwise free tuition, so that’s a good thing from your vantage point?

Prisco: That’s a very good thing. The other piece we’re concerned, that hasn’t got much media attention, is that one of the benefits of many times working in higher education, and I myself take advantage of this, if you work at a university, you or your dependents can attend that university without paying tuition. So, janitors, administrative assistants, they’ll hold a position at a university knowing they’re going to benefit the next generation, their children. That has never been a taxable benefit and right now, the House provision called for that tax tuition to be charged as taxable income.

Aron: And, there’s simultaneously an overhaul going on of the Higher Education Act called the Prosper Act and you have problems with that. A house committee this week approved it all on party lines, 23 to 17. You have problems with that bill too?

Prisco: The issue is even in the language. It always was a re-authorization of the original 1965 act and now they’re actually rewriting the whole bill. It’s about 600 pages. So, what most of us in higher education are calling for is just to slow down the process a little so we don’t end up saddled with a bunch of unintended consequences so that all of the things students relied on incentives to go to school end up being disincentives.

Aron: Republicans say it’s just going to streamline the federal loan process. There will be one federal loan, one federal grant, instead of a panoply. They say it’s a simplification process. You disagree?

Prisco: It’s not that I disagree, it’s just that’s not all there is to it. So, for example, I’ll tell you a story. One of our students who’s from Newark, he’s a third year accounting major ready to get set to have an internship, have a wonderful career. He and his whole family, their lives will change by him becoming an accountant. Their family ran into some trouble. We have FSEOG, or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant funds from the government, $175,000. Not a lot of money, but it helps. We were able to give that student a little extra money to get him through a bad time so that he was able to stay in school, graduate and now he’s an accountant in Monmouth County. So, small amounts of money can make a big difference.

Aron: Last question. People on the Republican side say that university campuses are bastions of liberalism. Aren’t you just playing right into that notion by saying that Democrats have a better view of higher ed?

Prisco: What we would always hope for is that we always go back to the original tenants of our American society and democracy, which is that we want an educated society so that we want a bipartisan view of these issues because every kind of education is important, and diversity of education and educational thought. That’s certainly what we promote at Felician. We are a very diverse campus. I want all of our students to hear different opinions because that’s how we will all move forward and advance our economy together.

Aron: Anne Prisco, president of Felician University, thanks very much.

Prisco: Thanks for having me and for being able to talk about the value of higher education.