By Bryan O'Keefe
Inside High Ed has a good story this morning on a brewing controversy over congressional “earmarks” for colleges and universities. Earmarks are just a kinder, gentler name for “pork” and the best way to secure this type of funding is by paying lobbyists extravagant fees to insert them into appropriations bills. This whole dirty process has come under extra scrutiny because of the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham scandals.
While “earmarks” and “pork” are generally undesirable, their presence in higher education presents a whole host of additional problems, as the Inside Higher Ed story points out. For example, “earmarks” are an end-run around the competitive grant process which is usually peer reviewed and has considerably more prestige. There is a strong argument to be made that pouring millions of dollars into lobbyist’s pockets while at the same time raising tuition through the roof is not exactly in the best interest of students either.
Now, somebody is finally shedding some light on this and it appears that colleges and universities are none too happy about it. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has written a letter to 111 colleges and universities asking for information on their earmarks dating back to 2000. According to Roll Call however (Hat Tip: National Review Online), higher education lobbyists are frantic. One has urged his clients not to respond. Another is predicting a “very messy” September and October.
The obvious question to ask is: what does higher education have to hide with this investigation? If they have done nothing wrong, then why not just write Senator Coburn a polite letter explaining their earmarks? Or is it the more likely case that revealing how much colleges and universities have spent on earmarks (and possibly how little they have actually gotten in return) will be tremendously embarrassing, especially at a time when colleges are claiming they are strapped for money and must raise tuition?
Kudos to Senator Coburn and his staff for putting this issue on the map. We hope that he continues to follow this aggressively – students, parents, taxpayers and lawmakers deserve to know just how much higher education is spending unnecessarily on K Street.