By Mary Ellen Flannery
“I like your take-no-prisoners attitude!” DeWayne Sheaffer, president of NEA’s National Council for Higher Education, told U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) this month.
NEA Higher Ed members will use that same get-it-done attitude, he promised Porter, in sending emails to Capitol Hill, urging their Congressional representatives to support President Biden’s Build Back Better plan—a domestic agenda that offers $111 billion in new, federal funds for higher education.
“I know from my own personal life that higher education has the power to open doors. I grew up on a rural farm in Iowa and I would not be where I am today without the opportunities afforded by my education,” said Porter, who counts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) among her former professors.
New Funding for Higher Ed
Porter joined Sheaffer and other NEA Higher Ed members in an online conversation to kick off National Higher Ed Month—an NEA-led celebration of higher education—and to talk about what’s happening with higher education in Congress.
The conversation, which was recorded, is available to watch online.
The biggest thing in Congress right now, Porter told faculty and staff members, is the budget-reconciliation bill, which the House has adopted—but is stalled in the Senate. This bill includes money for two years of free community college, increased Pell grants to help students pay for college, and new funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).
“The president’s domestic agenda will leave no student, no teacher, no family behind in our recovery,” Porter said. “When we help students reach their full potential and help workers continue to go to classrooms and do their best in those classrooms, we’re investing in the building blocks of our economy.”
The money for HBCUs and other MSIs, including Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges, is especially critical, Porter said. “This is part of making sure that we don’t just have colleges, but that we have colleges that graduate students, colleges that meet het cultural and community needs of our workforce,” she said.
“We need to do something.”
A law professor at University of California Irvine, Porter is well-known for pulling out a teacher-style white board and dry-erase marker to explain complex subjects to Congressional witnesses. But her famous accessory was unnecessary this month, as Porter responded to a handful of questions from NEA higher-ed members.
Enrique Farrera, an academic advisor from Oregon’s Clackamas Community College, asked how Congress would pay for the cost of free community college.
Congress needs to ensure corporations pay their fair share of taxes, Porter responded. Also, it needs to invest in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). “For every $1 [that Congress] gives the IRS, we collect $6,” she said. “Simply fully funding the agency to do its job would generate a significant amount of revenue.”
From Michigan, Central Michigan University professor Marcia Mackey asked about the role of Congress in improving conditions for adjunct or contingent faculty, who teach the vast majority of college students in the U.S., but often are paid poverty-level wages without access to healthcare benefits.
“I think we need to do something about this. Fundamentally, it’s about respecting what educators do—and that is educating students,” said Porter. “For too long, we’ve allowed [adjunct faculty] to be treated like second-class citizens and to be paid wages that…don’t put food on their table.
“This is an area where Congress could do more.”