Week after week. From foes. From friends. “When are you going to write a book?”
From true friends? “Your book should have been on the shelves a year ago. You won’t have any impact unless you’ve written a book.”
I lead with the lamest excuse of all.
“And exactly when will I write this book?” The slides begin in my mind of all the people busier than I am who have written books. My slides put all these authors in earnest conversation with Charlie Rose, Faith Middleton, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert.
“And exactly when?” O.K., next excuse: “The bread is in.” That’s a text message that arrives most weekday mornings.
“The Bread Guy” is my nickname at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where we will soon have our seventh food bank in as many months. To clarify “food bank”: the Greater Boston Food Bank unloads an 18-wheeler of frozen chicken, pork, bags of carrots, bread, and yogurt and whatever else at the back of the building. At first, an 18-wheeler's worth of food vanished in 90 minutes. The fourth was after summer classes ended and before fall classes had begun. We wondered if students would show. They did. At the sixth, last week, the food was gone in 60 minutes. These hungry, remember, are human beings taking calculus, computer science, biology, nursing.
The bread? Oh, yes. Here’s an e-mail from the other day.
I am a current BHCC student who is going through a rough time financially. My friends and I look forward to seeing the "bread guy" carting around the school with free bread and pastries. For some of us, it is the only thing that we get to eat that day. For others, it helps us save what we would have spent on food so that we can buy a T pass to get to and from school.
The food bank and the bread arrived after my March column here that I had thought was about using federal work-study funds to pay students to study -- so they’d have money for food. Instead, the column broke the news of hunger on college campuses. "Here and Now," on NPR, picked up the story (Professor Suggests Paying Students To Study). That brought an e-mail from the parents’ association of Minuteman High School in Concord. Could they deliver every day four to six cases of day-old bread from Panera? “Of course. Thank you.” Each morning, I or a colleague load the bread onto a three-tier steel cart that clangs and rattles as we roll the bread to the Single Stop office, where a colleague has peanut butter and jelly, too.
Historical Aside/You Can’t Make This Up: That’s “Minuteman” as in Lexington and Concord. Remember in the Longfellow poem, Paul Revere on the 18th of April in ’75, “Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar silently rowed to the Charlestown shore.” That spot on the Charlestown shore is just a few blocks from BHCC. The Minuteparents, then, are bringing the bread to Charlestown along pretty much the same roads as Revere rode in the other direction in ‘75. Surely the patriot silversmith had higher hopes for our nation than food banks in mind when he spurred his horse and looked over his left shoulder to where BHCC now stands.
My Goddamned Book? Next excuse?
Here’s a showstopper. Wars. My colleagues and I are always working with two students out of money because of wars. The family of one is in hiding in the civil war in Mali. Car bombs in Damascus have shut the banks of another student’s family. A refugee from the civil war a few years back in Kenya last year earned a few dollars over the Pell Grant limit. No more financial aid. He can’t come back to school.
Every day faculty and staff all over our campus are helping the 500 U.S. veterans back from deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, often, both. With the understaffed federal Department of Veterans Affairs, payments due to these men and women are late all the time. The veterans are, then, at the food banks, too.
Foes? How better to slow my nettlesome columns and convey me to oblivion than a year or two writing and (the real joke) trying to sell a book about the ease of educating the poor. My foes have the point that haunts me. Who cares, beyond my colleagues, the food banks and the Minuteparents, that these students have no food?
Who cares? The presidents of both my union, the National Education Association, and my lobby, the American Association of Community Colleges, blew off my suggestion to share with memberships the versions of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear American Singing” that The Nation published this fall. Click here for the poems. I had suggested that teachers and professors everywhere Steal This Assignment and have students flood the White House with the results. Not as literature but evidence that these millions of students have talent and motivation that’s worth lunch and a little help.
My Goddamned Book? Five years ago, I embedded myself at Bunker Hill Community College to find out who these students –- the millions failing to complete college –- are. What can they do? What would it take for them to succeed?
I’d had it with conferences on college access –- white tablecloths, sweating pitchers of ice water, pads and pens my students didn’t have. Speaker after speaker repeating demographics. And the excuses. And the excuses. And at lunch, platters upon platters of free sandwiches. Free drinks before dinner. I found, then and now, no evidence to counter my surmise that T-Mobile and Red Bull know more about these students’ lives than anyone on the higher education research/foundation/conference circuit.
My Goddamned Book would report my finding:
We, the people, can put at least a million, maybe two million, students on the path to a solid 21st-century career with funds already available in the federal budget. No new taxes.
My obstacles are that my blessedly simple, practical, finance-able ideas must be wrong. Otherwise, someone other than me would already have thought them up. Let me summarize. (This is only a column. You are going to have to buy the book.) Provide food. Give students a quiet place to study. Start with critical skills.
To increase degree, associate, bachelor’s, or certificate completion by at least a leap and a bound:
Right now, begin a pilot program that used already-budgeted federal work-study money to pay students to study. Click here for details. Wages to put food on the table will always trump giving up pay to study and attend class.
For Pell-eligible college students, provide the same federal free and reduced lunches these students received in k-12. Right now, we, the people, penalize students for continuing postsecondary education by taking away lunch. To fund this we can either cap federal direct-cost reimbursement for research grants (most now at least 50 percent) at 15 percent -- or just give me a few minutes with the Pentagon budget.
Require students receiving federal student aid to apply those funds first to being able to pass the Advanced Placement Exams in statistics and in English composition. Click here for details. (No, we, the people, will not pay current prices to the College Board.) Stop complaining about low U.S. math scores. Do something.
Evidence of students worthy of this investment? Again, click here and read the poems The Nation published.
My target populations are those now in community colleges. Not every single student. Two out of 20 in every section I’ve taught so far have the intellect to follow any rigorous course of study, from a Cisco systems license to admission at a selective college. Ten percent, then, of eight million students in community college is 800,000. To the many who will call my estimate folly, I’ll adjust by 75 percent. Call it 250,000 students. I’ll settle for a 10,000-student clinical trial/pilot, the rigor of which education has never seen before.
These are the students worth the public investment now. Our lack of an answer for the other 7,750,000 million students is no excuse for failing to educate, to the max, the 250,000 I will delineate in My Goddamned Book.
Yes, stories sell books. My Goddamned Book will move aside what too often passes for education reform –- the hero teacher and hero student tales. Jaime Escalante, “Stand and Deliver,” and Erin Gruwell, “Freedom Writers,” inspire me every day. Their work is evidence that these students are worth an investment. Recommending these movies to a friend is not what My Goddamned Book will propose.
My Goddamned Book will examine the shabby state of data with which to do real research in education. My Goddamned Book, and perhaps a column soon, will illuminate how education wonks and leaders over the past few decades have mastered (and doctored, I guess) excuses while medical doctors and scientists have found cures and treatments for many cancers.
Exactly when will I write My Goddamned Book? When the BHCC student who gave this stunning speech in Washington at the Opportunity Nation Summit has a funded plan for food for the balance of the semester. Click here and take a look.
My Goddamned Book will admit that I don’t think everyone needs college and that I have no idea how many more completions and graduations will energize the economy. My Goddamned Book will recognize that none of us has the slightest idea what would happen if a million more students per year, or even 1,000, could pass those two AP Exams. My Goddamned Book will propose that we, the people, give these simple ideas – food, quiet study time, high standards -- a try.
Is 250,000 still too big a clinical trial still? Is 10,000? O.K., how about the solutions I propose for 1,000 students at Bunker Hill Community College, starting Monday? I’ll bet my job on their success.
Let’s get one thing straight: Financial aid award letters can and should be improved to better help students understand the costs of higher education and the aid available to them.
Although Rachel Fishman’s Views article in Monday's Inside Higher Ed would have readers believe otherwise, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and the 18,000 financial aid professionals we represent are committed to ensuring that students and families have the information they need to make good decisions about planning and paying for college.
Fishman’s opinion article not only oversimplifies and misrepresents NASFAA’s position, it wastes precious time drawing battle lines over a fight that doesn’t exist, instead of moving the policy discussion forward.
Here’s the reality:
All key stakeholders agree that improvement is needed in consumer disclosures about the cost of college. That’s why NASFAA convened a Consumer Information and Award Letter Task Force on this subject almost a year ago. In May, that task force released recommendations on how to improve award letters and consumer notification -- recommendations that align with the Department of Education’s recently released Shopping Sheet in several key areas.
NASFAA has never opposed or discouraged use of the Shopping Sheet. Rather, we have urged schools to carefully examine the Shopping Sheet to ensure it will effectively communicate important information. We’ve also encouraged members to – at a minimum – adopt the recommendations NASFAA issued in the spring. In a recent letter to members, I wrote, “Regardless of whether your institution adopts the Shopping Sheet, I urge you to strongly consider standardizing specific elements of the Shopping Sheet that are in correlation with NASFAA’s recommendations, as set forth by the Task Force and adopted by the NASFAA Board of Directors.”
NASFAA has been at the forefront of discussions about how to lead improvement of consumer disclosures. Rather than putting “entrenched institutional interests above students’ financial welfare” (as Fishman asserts) we’ve actually partnered with the Department of Education throughout this process, urging our members to offer feedback on preliminary versions of the Shopping Sheet as well as the final version. We were pleased to partner with key members of the Department of Education and White House to see aspects of our recommendations adopted in the final version.
Ignoring the existence of NASFAA’s detailed recommendations show at best a lack of research (or even cursory glance) on Fishman’s part, and at worst an intentional omission of facts in order to bolster her misguided assertions that do little to move this policy discussion forward.
The truth is that our recommendations align in many places with the goals of the Shopping Sheet. For instance, we concur with mandating the standardization of common terminology to avoid confusion and enhance comparability. We also recommend that self-help aid and student loans be clearly delineated from grants and scholarships. In fact, NASFAA’s recommendations go further than the shopping sheet, advocating for a one-stop online location where students can be shown all of their student loan indebtedness, both federal and private.
However, we do remain cautious about fully endorsing the Shopping Sheet because it hasn’t been consumer-tested against other models, including online and electronic models currently utilized successfully by leading institutions of higher education. Schools are already required to provide an overwhelming number of disclosures to students and parents. Without consumer testing, no one can assert that the Shopping Sheet is the best way to convey financial aid award information to all types of students. To ensure the Shopping Sheet is based on rigorous research rather than anecdote, NASFAA is planning a consumer test, to be conducted through an independent third-party evaluator.
In the absence of such empirical data, NASFAA encourages financial aid offices to “to carefully review the Shopping Sheet before adopting it to ensure it will effectively communicate this critical information to the students and families they serve.”
This statement of caution should not be misrepresented as opposition. NASFAA does not oppose the Shopping Sheet, but we do wish to circumvent unintended negative consequences, avoid additional confusion, and preserve the ability of schools to deliver information in ways that they have found best serve their particular populations.
Fishman states that “the Shopping Sheet may need to be altered in some circumstances.” We agree. Unfortunately, once a school agrees to use the Shopping Sheet in its current form, it cannot be altered to meet the unique needs of diverse higher education institutions -- and this inflexibility is one of NASFAA’s primary concerns.
For instance, some campuses send a different award letter to returning students than to incoming students. While the Shopping Sheet is designed to inform first-time or prospective students, the vast majority of college students are returning students.
Appropriate consumer disclosures that actually help students and families cannot be developed in a vacuum. Financial aid administrators are a key part of the ongoing dialogue. We agree that change is needed and some level of standardization is warranted, but this process must be deliberative and based on quantifiable data about what works for students and families. Anything less is a disservice to those we are trying to help.
Justin Draeger is president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Imagine you’ve just been accepted to the college of your dreams. At first you feel elation, but then anxiety sets in — will you and your family be able to afford it? Since financial aid packages often blur the line between grants and loans, it might be hard to tell. A $40,000 "award" at one school might seem like a much better deal than a $20,000 package at another — unless you realize the larger "award" consists mostly of loans. With borrowing and loan default rates on the rise, aid packages have huge consequences for students’ educational and financial lives.
In response, the U.S. Department of Education recently unveiled a "Shopping Sheet" that standardizes the way financial aid packages are presented to students. This allows students and parents to easily compare the true cost of one college to another. But institutions don’t have to use the Shopping Sheet, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), a powerful industry trade group, is trying to make sure they never do.
NASFAA should be an influential advocate for the Shopping Sheet. Part of its mission is to support policies that increase student access and success. But when the Shopping Sheet was recently unveiled by the Department of Education, NASFAA’s president, Justin Draeger, issued the following statement:
"We remain concerned with the inflexible standardization of the Shopping Sheet, and more broadly, with the multitude of consumer disclosure initiatives that have been introduced in recent months. Institutions need flexibility to design a financial aid award letter that best meets the needs of their unique student populations."
The Shopping Sheet might need to be altered in some circumstances, whether it be something as simple as how to classify the federal TEACH grant, or something much more complicated like how to accurately reflect cost of attendance and net price for part-time students. Financial aid administrators, however, are unlikely to experiment with it and provide invaluable feedback since their own professional organization signals that they shouldn’t. And a system in which every institution creates its own award letter ends up serving no students well.
As an example, here’s a real financial aid award letter, followed by a version of the Shopping Sheet containing the same information. I’ve indicated in red some key differences between the two versions to show how the Shopping Sheet would help students and families make better decisions (click on either image to zoom in):
The first letter combines work-study and loans into the “total award” the student will receive for the academic year, with no reference to the student’s cost of attendance. It goes on to say that “You have been awarded” several federal loans. “Award” is a generous term here since almost the entire cost of attendance will be financed by student loan debt. This amount will only grow larger as interest accrues over time. Even more worrisome, the package includes over $30,000 in a Parent PLUS loan. Of federal loan options, PLUS loans have the highest interest rate, and are not a guarantee — parents have to apply for one.
The Shopping Sheet, by contrast, makes this harsh reality perfectly clear by using the institution’s estimated full cost of attendance and displaying the student’s net price, after accounting for grant and scholarship aid. Federal loans are kept separate from grants and scholarships. Parent PLUS and private loans are only mentioned as a financing option that may be available depending on the student’s situation. The sheet also standardizes common terminology so that loans and grants aren’t cloaked in financial aid jargon — such as labeling a Perkins Loan as “Perkins” or “Perkins L.”
The Shopping Sheet makes this university’s award package look a lot less rosy. And that’s probably one of the main reasons why many institutions and NASFAA are so against it. With skyrocketing costs and persistent state disinvestment, revenue-hungry institutions will try anything to get accepted students in the door. This includes adding more loans to the bottom-line of the aid package, and adding PLUS loans where alternative private loans used to be. Packaging of financial aid is becoming increasingly strategic, and is often done with the institution’s goals, not a student’s need, in mind.
If NASFAA continues to put entrenched institutional interests above students’ financial welfare, it’s unlikely that the Shopping Sheet will be voluntarily adopted at a large scale. The best bet for getting clear, comparable, useful information into students’ hands is federal legislation. Senator Al Franken has introduced a bill with bipartisan support that would require the use of a model aid letter, similar to the Shopping Sheet. “Students today have enough obstacles keeping them from a quality education, deciphering the paperwork shouldn’t be one of them,” remarked Senator Ben Cardin, one of the bill's co-sponsors, “We need to make it easier to understand the options for financial aid and exactly what the full cost will be.”
That’s true, but legislation takes time. Students and their families need help understanding college costs now. If NASFAA is serious about institutional flexibility that actually helps students, then they should encourage institutions to adopt and experiment with the Shopping Sheet now. Otherwise, their flexibility will be legislated away.
Rachel Fishman is a policy analyst for the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Before joining New America, she worked as a policy analyst at Education Sector.