ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As last year was drawing to a close, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions looked back at the panel’s achievements in 2014 and ahead at what he hopes it will accomplish in 2015.
The committee, said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., “has produced some of the most significant legislation of any Senate committee this year. In a dysfunctional Congress, among senators with profound ideological differences, our work shows what can happen when you focus on getting results on issues important to the American people.”
This year, the likely new committee chair has even grander plans as the GOP takes control of the Senate. Congress is set to tackle the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, originally part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Alexander has said he would like to “start from scratch” and has given a few hints what that might include.
His top priority is to simplify, dramatically, FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – that students have to plow through to apply for federal assistance. He would cut the daunting 108 questions down to a simple two.
He also said he believes the Obama administration will work with him.
Administrators at the University of New Mexico are closely monitoring developments in the nation’s capital.
Terry Babbitt, UNM’s associate vice president for enrollment management, said the university fully supports simplifying the financial aid process, particularly if it helps low-income families apply and understand the system.
One change UNM would like to see would be the use of “prior-prior year data” for FAFSA instead of the “prior
year” system now in place, which juggles a March 1 application deadline with April 15 tax filing complications and estimates. Research suggests that family income situations do not change much from year to year, so prior-prior would allow financial data from, say, 2013, to be used in 2014 for a 2015 application.
UNM, if it had its way, would also simplify FAFSA, but not to the degree Alexander wants. UNM would require only demographic, student eligibility and dependency status information. The university also would like to see a reapplication waiver so that awards can be made for two years, instead of submitting tax information every year, as has been the case. UNM would waive income tax submission requirements for the lowest income applicants.
Another closely watched development is the college ratings system the administration is moving to implement. The Department of Education last month released details of how it would hold institutions of higher education accountable. The department is seeking public input through February.
“As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable, and ensure that all students graduate with a quality education of real value,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last month.
The White House has announced that the ratings plan would tie financial aid to a school’s performance. That, however, would require congressional approval and would not be implemented until 2018.
Alexander, meanwhile, opposes a federal ratings system.
The rating system does not rank colleges and universities. Instead, it will likely categorize institutions as high-performing, average and low-performing, with most falling in the middle.
It will also group institutions by type and mission. It will be based on metrics, including many proposed over the past year by colleges and universities, students and parents, researchers, statisticians, economists and advocates.
Metrics include the percentage of a school’s students that receive Pell Grants, family income, how much a family can be expected to contribute to a student’s education, first-generation college status, college costs, completion rates, transfer rates, success at finding work after graduation, graduate school results and success in repaying student loans.
According to the Education Department’s official blog, the ratings system is a big part of Obama’s plan “to expand college opportunity by recognizing institutions that excel at enrolling students from all backgrounds; focus on maintaining affordability; and succeed at helping all students graduate with a degree or certificate of value.”
From UNM’s perspective, the plan seems “pretty basic” – access, affordability and student outcomes, Babbitt said. “UNM would fare well in the areas of access and affordability – even in student outcomes if inputs are considered.”
Last year, the House of Representatives passed the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act. If it eventually becomes law, the Department of Education would no longer provide data on the College Navigator website, but instead set up an online “dashboard” showing information on completion, loan debt and loan repayment rates.
The bill, H.R. 4983, would strengthen transparency and consumer information for college students and their families. Newly required information will include costs and outcomes for a larger group of students than just first-year full-timers. It would include transfer and part-time students.
UNM already maintains such data and incorporates it into academic dashboards, so there would probably be little change.
GOP White Paper
Late last year, Senate Republicans issued a white paper proposing the consolidation of all student grant and loan programs into one Pell Grant program and one Stafford loan program. For repaying loans, the GOP would consolidate eight repayment programs into two: one for standard repayments and one for modified repayments based on income.
“Repayments are where confusion really starts to impact the student borrower,” Babbitt said. “There are too many repayment options for the student to contemplate.”
He would like to see an income-based repayment as the default option for eligible student borrowers, with simple standard options for others.
The Republicans also want to change the basic Pell Grant program by creating a “Flex Pell Grant.” Students would be awarded a grant for a six-year period and use the money as needed, essentially reinstating the year-round Pell Grant that was eliminated as part of the 2011 budget agreement.
“This is positive, in that it lets students make progress during summer terms,” Babbitt said.
But there is a difference in the year-round program and the GOP proposal, which could lead to an overall cut in the Pell program by freezing eligibility amounts. “Reinstating year-round Pell would add an award for students to be able to take summer school without limiting potential increases in the program,” Babbitt said. “If Flex Pell did not result in cuts or a freeze in the program funding, it would be beneficial in allowing students to use funds at their own rate and accelerate progress.” UNM would like to see a similar model for the state’s lottery scholarship.
Stafford loans are the most common form of government student loans. They come in two forms – subsidized and unsubsidized. Under subsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest while a student is enrolled in school at least half time. Students can borrow up to $8,500 annually, depending on eligibility.
Senate Republicans would eliminate subsidized loans, something UNM doesn’t feel is wise.
“We feel the interest subsidy for the neediest students is important to keep,” Babbitt said.