House to Tackle Financial Aid

By Staff

As Congress gears up for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), dozens of interested parties are submitting proposals and making appearances in order to get their suggestions heard. This week, the House will hear proposals on making financial aid more a part of the solution rather than the confusing problem it has become for many students and graduates.

The HEA was last authorized in 2008, and by many accounts it has been less than successful in attaining its loft goals. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the 1,158-page bill, which was itself five years in the making, was expected to leave a lasting imprint on American higher education, holding colleges and states accountable for skyrocketing tuition and reining in abuses in the student-loan system. It was supposed to simplify the process of applying for federal student aid and help students make better borrowing and college-going decisions, courtesy of a shorter application form and a slew of new disclosures.

In some concrete ways, the 2008 reauthorization has achieved those goals. Applying for student aid is easier than it used to be, and consumers have access to more information about college costs and outcomes than ever before. States are being forced to justify cuts in higher-education spending, and institutions with “preferred-lender lists” are being asked to explain their choices.

But the bill has failed in its larger goals of making college more accountable and more affordable. Since 2008, tuition at four-year public colleges has increased significantly, as states have slashed their higher-education budgets. At the same time, public confidence in the nation’s colleges has declined, with lawmakers and families increasingly questioning the value of a college degree.

In an effort to improve the financial aid aspects of the, the House is taking testimony this week. The Committee on Education and the Workforce goes to the heart of the Higher Education Act with a 10 a.m. hearing on simplifying federal financial aid programs. Expect to hear a lot about “one grant, one loan and one tax credit.” Kristin Conklin, founding partner of HCM Strategists, will hit recommendations for higher standards for both colleges and students from the group’s reports for a Gates Foundation-funded project earlier this year.

Among the most troubling findings addressed in the report is that while nearly half of all students do not complete a credential within six years, student borrowing has practically doubled over the last decade. College students borrowed $56 billion in 2002; but that figure had increased to $113 billion by 2012. Students are therefore going to deeper into debt with a less than 50 percent likelihood of earning a degree. As harsh as it may be to be a college graduate saddled with student loans, living deep in debt without a degree to help dig out of it is a pretty bleak reality.

In addition, POLITICO reports thats higher ed economist Sandy Baum, a research professor of education policy at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Urban Institute, will testify this week. Baum and Conklin co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that calls for changing the Pell Grant to encourage students to take 15 credit hours.

Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation, will argue that income-based repayment should be the only kind of repayment, but it needs changes. The program as it stands now, he’ll say, is a “massive tuition assistance program for graduate students masquerading as a means-tested safety net.” Jen Mishory, deputy director of Young Invincibles, will also talk about income-based repayment, as well as the student perspective on financial aid simplification.