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Will Campus Sexual-Assault Probes Affect Enrollment?

By Stephanie Haven, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Sixty-seven U.S. colleges are under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases. And prospective students have started to take notice.

The past academic year marked a seismic shift. No longer were discussions of campus sexual assault confined to a handful of Northeastern colleges. From the University of California, Berkeley, to the Pennsylvania State University and from the University of Chicago to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, students unleashed an army of activists on college administrators.

The White House took notice, creating a task force on campus rape. Congress took notice, promising legislation and hosting hearings where students testified. The Departments of Justice and Education took notice, restarting stagnant investigations.

“Schools are realizing that this is something that they have to stop (messing) up because it’s looking so bad for them,” said John Kelly, special projects coordinator at Know Your IX, a student rights organization focused on the federal law that bans gender discrimination on campus. “It’s not going to bode well.”

For colleges that had already been in the spotlight for mishandling sexual assault cases before this year, the national attention packed an extra punch.

“I have seen schools have demonstrable drops in enrollments when these kinds of situations end up in the newspaper when students say, ‘Our school isn’t being truthful about what crimes happen on our campus,'” said James Moore, the Education Department manager of the Jeanne Clery Act Compliance Team, which grew out of a federal law that requires colleges to report campus crime to the department. “The cover-up ends up hurting you more than the offense itself.”

College applicants select schools for myriad reasons. But does the handling of sexual assault by institutions of higher learning play a part in those decisions?

While admissions officers are careful not to point to it as the sole reason for the decline, applications to two elite colleges — Dartmouth and Amherst — fell by 14 percent and 8 percent, respectively, after recent high-publicity sexual assault cases on their campuses.

But one year’s numbers, though significant in these examples, don’t make a trend.

How the new national attention affects applicants’ decisions in the next admission cycle and beyond remains to be seen.

“If you have increased publicity about mismanagement, sexual assault, or whatever — if it’s in the paper year after year — it may have a snowball effect on application numbers,” said Tony Bankston, the dean of admissions at Illinois Wesleyan University and a member of the Admission Practices Committee of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Looked at as a consumer protection issue, “buyers” — prospective students and parents — have become more informed about sexual assault as an issue on college campuses. With that savvy has come increased demand for accountability, such as accurate data about the number of sexual assaults in a year and compliance with related federal law.

“The White House can issue different statements, Congress can legislate new laws, but at the end of the day it’s really going to be prospective students, current students, and alumni who keep up the pressure over time,” said Tracey Vitchers, the chair of the board of Students Active for Ending Rape, a student rights group. “That external pressure — when it comes to image, endowment size, and recruitment — is very important to the school.”

But sexual assault remains one of the most underreported crimes. Though the Clery Act requires colleges to report incidents of sexual assault, stark inconsistencies remain from school to school. More often than not, colleges with higher reported numbers of sexual assault reflect an environment where students feel comfortable coming forward, not necessarily a campus rife with sexual violence, according to the Department of Education.

“What you often find is schools with higher numbers have simply done more to find out what the truth is,” Moore said. “They’ve been more transparent about it or they’ve created a safer environment for people to come forward. And if you do that, people will let you know what’s going on.”

Photo: vkp_patel via flickr

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Michelle Obama Pushes Immigration Fix As New Citizens Take Oath

By Stephanie Haven, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama urged overhauling the nation’s immigration laws Wednesday while presiding over a naturalization ceremony for 50 new U.S. citizens at the National Archives.

“Today in Washington, folks are still debating whether or not to fix our immigration system even though just about everyone agrees that it is broken,” she said.

She said her husband continued to make immigration revisions his top legislative priority, despite the inability to get Congress to go along. Action by Congress is even more unlikely now, since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia was defeated in a Republican primary in part because of complaints that he appeared willing to compromise with Democrats on an overhaul.

“He refuses to give up the fight, because at the end of the day this fight isn’t about abstract principles; it’s about real people,” the first lady said of President Barack Obama. “People like you. People like us. Our fellow Americans.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson delivered the oath of allegiance, the promise that naturalization candidates recite in order to be declared citizens.

“Ever since you’ve been in this country, someone will look at you, listen to your accent and ask your name — and they’ll ask you where you are from,” Johnson said. “From this day forward, you can say, ‘I’m an American.’ Just like that.”

Johnson’s department is reviewing the administration’s handling of immigration.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services randomly selected the 50 naturalization candidates who attended Wednesday’s ceremony. They came from 44 countries, and all live in the Washington area, according to the agency’s public affairs officer, Joanne Ferreira.

“Immigration is at the heart of how we developed as a nation,” Michelle Obama said. “We still, very much, are a nation of immigrants.”

The U.S. naturalizes 600,000 to 700,000 candidates every year, and the ceremonies take place nearly every day across the country. Individuals with green cards must be in the country five years before they qualify for naturalization, and those applying for citizenship through marriage have to live in the U.S. for three years.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

Senate Refuses To Take Up Bill To Refinance Student Loans

By Stephanie Haven, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Divided along mostly partisan lines, the Senate refused Wednesday to take up a Democrat-backed bill that would have enabled individuals to refinance existing student loans to the lower interest rate Congress approved last year for new borrowers.

Among the roadblocks: Democrats proposed paying the $55.6 billion price for the lower rates with a tax increase on people who make more than $1 million a year.

“Billionaires or students,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the sponsor of the proposal. “Investing in students and asking millionaires to pay their taxes seems pretty fair to me.”

Republicans called the bill a “political stunt,” saying Democrats had proposed it as an election campaign tool rather than a means to address the problems with higher education.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, dubbed the payment mechanism a “class warfare tax.”

Republicans also pointed to a report from the Congressional Research Service that found the legislation would amount to an average of $1 a day in savings for those with student loan debt.

“College graduates don’t need a $1-a-day tax subsidy to pay off their loan; they need a job,” Alexander said. “Why would we spend time on this if it doesn’t deal with the real issues? The real problems with student loans are complexity and over-borrowing.”

Forty million Americans are in the process of paying back a total of $1.2 trillion in student debt.

The bill would have allowed borrowers with standard undergraduate loans, for example, to reduce their interest rate from an average of 6.8 percent to 3.86 percent. The lower rates are based on bipartisan legislation from last year that fixed new student-loan rates to those of the market.

Photo: “thisisbossi” via Flickr

Democratic Senators: Amend Constitution To Limit Money In Elections

By Stephanie Haven, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Senate began debate Tuesday on a Democrat-proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the government to regulate campaign money again, a response to recent Supreme Court rulings that removed limits on certain election contributions.

Democrats argue that the Supreme Court’s decisions in two cases allowed billionaires — most notably conservatives Charles and David Koch — to influence politics at rates disproportionate to the rest of the populace.

Republicans fought back Tuesday, saying the amendment would inhibit citizens’ First Amendment rights.

Divided along partisan lines, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spearheaded their parties’ opposing views as the Senate Judiciary Committee debated the proposed amendment.

“The flood of dark money into our nation’s political system poses the greatest threat to our democracy that I have witnessed during my tenure in public service,” Reid said. “The decisions by the Supreme Court have left the American people with a status quo in which one side’s billionaires are pitted against the other side’s billionaires.”

Reid said the Supreme Court decisions in the two cases — Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. FEC — had “eviscerated our campaign laws.”

McConnell called the proposed amendment dangerous and argued it would enable politicians to constrain constituent voices.

“The recourse to being criticized is not to shut up our fellow citizens,” McConnell said. “The First Amendment is about empowering the people, not the government. The proposed amendment has it exactly backwards.”

The Democrats have little chance of ratifying this measure. It would require a two-thirds vote of the House of Representatives and the Senate, an impossibility in a divided Congress. Even if it got past Congress, 38 states then would have to ratify it.

The last amendment ratified was the 27th, which prohibits Congress from raising its pay during its current session. First proposed in 1789, it was ratified in 1992.

“This is a political exercise,” McConnell said. “When it comes to free speech, we shouldn’t substitute the incumbent-protection desires of politicians for the protection the Constitution guarantees to all Americans.”

Reid, who announced support for the amendment last month, spoke about his personal experience with changes in campaign finance law since 1978, when each campaign donor had to list the amount, his or her occupation and address, among other personal details, which Reid said kept the system transparent.

He said that was lost after the 2010 Citizens United decision.

“No one knew where the money came from, and the people in Nevada were subjected to false and misleading ads, not knowing anything about these shadow groups,” Reid said, referring to so-called super political action committees.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong