Support for Report on 'Rethinking' Student Aid

October 8, 2008

There's a maxim in journalism that a reporter has probably struck an appropriate balance in an article about a disputed topic if none of the parties is ecstatic about the piece, but everyone thinks they were treated fairly.

The same might be said for the drafters of major reports that aim to radically reinvent some aspect of American society about which people hold strong views. If everyone with a stake in the matter is at least a little bit unhappy, but nobody declares that the sky is falling, chances are that the report has a chance to gain acceptance and make a difference.

It's too early to tell if a report released last month -- in which a panel of financial aid experts seek to refashion the federal student aid programs -- will strike that balance in a way that it becomes a basis for changes in federal policy, as its sponsors clearly hope it will.

But as the leaders of the College Board-sponsored panel aired their report Tuesday before a crowd of Congressional aides, financial aid officers, and Washington policy wonks, the reaction suggested that the report may be poised to make an impact.

While leaders of the Rethinking Student Aid panel acknowledged that there has been a stony silence so far from many higher education groups and student advocates who are likely to oppose some of the panel's suggestions (notably its calls for eliminating several highly popular federal aid programs and the interest subsidy that the government pays on so-called subsidized loans while borrowers are in college), they released statements of support from a wide range of college leaders.

And at Tuesday's panel, they fielded some tough questions but heard many words of praise, both from some people who think they've gone too far (by proposing the end of some popular benefits) and from others (like Arthur Hauptman, a longtime Washington financial aid analyst) who wished they'd proposed an even more radical remaking of the financial aid system.

"We're not looking for agreement on every detail," said Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and co-chair, with the economist Sandy Baum, of the student aid panel. "We really want to ignite a serious, purposeful, goal-oriented discussion ... about how the goals of the federal student aid system can best be met."

Tuesday's forum in a Senate office building was meant to be the start of that conversation, and after panel members laid out the group's principles and recommendations, commenters and critics weighed in.

David Breneman, former dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and director of its joint bachelor's/master's program in public policy, credited the panel with putting the interests of students first, above "the interests of institutions and banks" that have often been given precedence by policy makers.

But he suggested that the panel had "bowed to political necessity in not questioning the continuing use" of federal tax breaks for college that do virtually nothing to help students from low-income families, on whom the federal financial aid system should focus. "There are certain policies that, once started, you cannot end them," Breneman surmised, citing pressures from middle class taxpayers.

Officials from the University of Pennsylvania and Dickinson College expressed concerns about the panel's proposal to eliminate the so-called campus based student aid programs, such as Perkins Loans and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which give college financial aid officers significant flexibility in financing college for working class students. Don Saleh, vice chancellor for enrollment management at Syracuse University, said he understood that there may be some "entrenchment" among college aid officials to protect such programs, but said he believed campus administrators should support the panel's inclination to "put the priorities of students first."

At the close of Tuesday's session, McPherson, of the Spencer Foundation, promised that the panel's leaders would "work very hard to stimulate the conversation" about reshaping the federal aid programs, with the goal of influencing the work of Congress going forward.

For at least one of the handful of Congressional staff members in the audience Tuesday, the report from the Rethinking Student Aid panel is likely to do that. "There is an appetite for a more thoughtful dialogue" about federal financial aid, said David Cleary, a top aide to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. "If they do a good job generating discussion, they will make it easier for Congress to make some real changes" when it next renews the Higher Education Act, in 2012.



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