WASHINGTON — Rep. Virginia Foxx says she can empathize with struggling low-income students. She used to be one.
Foxx describes herself as “somebody who was extraordinarily poor and had a tough time, really tough time, getting my degree.” As an undergraduate, she got married, worked full-time, had a baby, and went to school part-time. She typed other students’ papers at night for 35 cents a page. It took seven years to graduate.
As one of the most conservative members of Congress, known for provocative and polarizing commentary, Foxx said she feels she must balance her belief in less government and lower taxes with a desire to channel federal financial aid money to students who need help. Now as Congress prepares to reauthorize the most important law about the federal government’s role in higher education, the Republican lawmaker from Banner Elk, N.C., is playing a major role.
In preparation for congressional debates over higher education policy, Foxx has chaired a series of hearings about college affordability as chairwoman of the higher education subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
“From the beginning of my life I’ve known that education was the key to get out of poverty,” she said in an interview earlier this month, just before the House recessed for the holidays. “And so I’ve always been dedicated to helping people like that.”
Foxx advised many low-income students while she was an administrator and sociology professor at Appalachian State University in Boone and as president of Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine.
“Once a week some woman – and it was always a woman – some woman would come in my office and say to me, ‘You don’t realize how this has changed my life,’” Foxx said, briefly tearing up. “And it would often be women who had dropped out of high school to get married and have a family and then in most cases they lost their jobs and they’d gone back to school.”
Foxx was in charge of three programs for disadvantaged students at Appalachian State: Breakthrough, for African-Americans; Upward Bound, for high school students; and Special Services, for college students. The programs helped low-income students who were the first in their families to go to college, but who didn’t meet regular admissions requirements.
The early version of the Pell grant, which is now the centerpiece of federal student aid, began when she worked there. Today about 9 million students receive Pell grants, at a cost of about $30 billion annually. The most recent of the affordability hearings, on Dec. 3, was about Pell grants.
“I was literally on the front lines with these programs,’’ Foxx said. “So I know how important Pell is to many, many students. I think it’s appropriate that we focus hardworking taxpayer money…on students who need financial aid and who want to improve themselves and will ultimately – hopefully – pay back to the culture through their efforts. But I do think we need more accountability in that area”.
What’s needed, she said, is better allocation of the aid and better counseling for students.
Molly Corbett Broad, a spokeswoman for higher education as president of the American Council on Education, knows Foxx well from the days when Broad was president of the University of North Carolina and Foxx was a state senator.
“We all see her endeavoring to strike the right balance that fits with her, not only her history and personal experience, but also those in the community where she grew up,” Broad said. “She tries very hard to balance that knowledge with her own personal political ideology.”
Foxx, 70, was born in the Little Italy neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City, but her family moved to the Linville Falls community near the Blue Ridge Parkway when she was 6. Her father was a hairdresser and construction worker, her mother a restaurant cook and hotel maid. The family grew most of their own food.
She attended Lees-McRae College, then a junior college, and Appalachian State before she got married during her junior year. Foxx transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she earned her degree. Her husband, Tom, went to UNC-Chapel Hill in 1961, and they were young and poor together, she said.
“His parents were totally illiterate,” she said. “His father died when he was 10.”
As a student, Foxx worked as a secretary, graded papers, waited tables and was a weaver at the Crossnore Weaving Room, in Crossnore, N.C., where she’d learned traditional weaving at age 12. She went on to receive a master’s degree in teaching and sociology from UNC-Chapel Hill and a doctorate in education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
First elected to Congress in 2004 from North Carolina’s 5th District, Foxx has a rating from the American Conservative Union of 92 percent. The latest annual lawmaking rankings by the National Journal, a nonpartisan monthly magazine that covers government and politics, says that out of 435 members of the House, only 61 have a more conservative voting record than Foxx.
The congresswoman has also been known for making divisive comments. In 2009, speaking on the House floor, she said “we have more to fear” from the health care bill passing “than we do from any terrorist right now in any country.”
Foxx also caused an uproar that same year when she said that Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who in 1998 was tortured, tied to a fence and left to die, was killed in a robbery and not because he was gay. She called the account a “hoax,” but law enforcement authorities at the time said that Shepard’s assailants had lured him from a bar pretending to be gay.
Shepard’s mother was in the House gallery in 2009 when Foxx made her remarks. The congresswoman subsequently apologized. A hate crimes act named for Shepard became law that year.
The education hearings, however, haven’t been known for controversy. Foxx has made her views known, but opened the floor to a wide array of other opinions as well.
In the first hearing that she chaired in the House college affordability series, Foxx said that faced with the budget deficit and national debt, “continuing to increase federal subsidies to supplement the growing cost of education is simply unsustainable.”
Topics of the 12 hearings so far have included student loans, Pell grants, and ways colleges have found to reduce costs, such as tests students can take to get credit for past learning in school or on a job.
Work on the new higher education law hasn’t started, and it’s too early to say what specific changes may be ahead for Pell grants.
Foxx said that Pell grants were a good use of money for “students who need financial aid and who want to improve themselves and will ultimately, hopefully, pay back to the culture through their efforts.” But she added that she also wanted to see better procedures in how the funds are allocated and better counseling for students.
Rep. Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said Democrats liked the hearings and found them balanced.
“We hope that our Republican colleagues will join us in a shared commitment to passing a bipartisan Higher Education Act reauthorization that keeps students at the center of the conversation and makes a high-quality education more affordable and accessible for all,” he said.
“There has always been a significant bipartisan involvement” in the Higher Education Act’s reauthorization, Broad said. “So far that’s exactly what we have seen under the leadership of Chairwoman Foxx.”
Foxx also has “stood up to resisting unnecessary regulations, and in that sense she’s been a champion for us,” she added.
Carrie Warick, director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network, an advocacy group, said the hearings had allowed all viewpoints to be aired on how to address college affordability.
She said her group hopes the federal government changes rules to allow better data to be kept on Pell grant recipients. Today the government doesn’t track them systematically.
Foxx had a hand in that. In 2008, when the Higher Education Act was last revised, her amendment banned the Department of Education from setting up the kind of student recordkeeping that would allow the government to build a database of Pell grant recipients, out of concerns for student privacy, Warick said.
She said one of her group’s biggest frustrations was to hear calls for greater efficiency with the Pell program, since it’s impossible to know how efficient it is without the data.
Differences aside, Foxx said she’s encouraged by the hearings.
“I think it’s been exciting to see some of the innovations that are going on in higher education that will make education more affordable,” she said.
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