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A Federal Impediment to Quicker Degrees

A Federal Impediment to Quicker Degrees
September 21, 2010

In February 2009, at a meeting of the American Council on Education, I challenged a group of university presidents and other leaders of higher education to focus on the need for greater innovation in higher education. I encouraged those leaders to heed the lesson offered by George Romney to the auto industry in the 1970s to innovate or lose their advantage: “There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success,” he said. I followed up in October 2009 with an article in Newsweek entitled "The Three-Year Solution: How the reinvention of higher education benefits parents, students, and schools."

The response has been pleasantly surprising.

Over the past year and a half, a growing number of institutions of higher education came forward with proposals to offer three-year degrees to their students. Here are a few examples:

  • Grace College, in Winona Lake, Ind., is offering an accelerated three-year degree in each of its 50-plus major areas of study. Dr. Ronald Manahan, Grace's president, cites the cost of college as a driving force behind the decision. “We have listened to people’s concerns about [the cost of] higher education and we are answering them,” he said.
  • Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, Pa., is offering a three-year bachelor of interior architecture without summer classes, allowing students to get into the job market a year earlier. School officials have reconfigured the four-year degree by cutting Studio classes from 14 weeks to just seven, and when compared to similar programs, these students graduate two years earlier.
  • Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Tex., is offering an accelerated three-year medical degree, rather than the usual four. The program is aimed at making it easier and more affordable for students to become family doctors.

As institutions of higher education look into the possibility of offering a three-year degree, some have run into federal policies that seem to interfere with their ability to innovate. For example, this May I received a letter from Jimmy Cheek, chancellor of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, describing a potential obstacle to a three-year degree surrounding student loans.

Here’s the issue: Under the Higher Education Act, student loan limits are tightly set to prevent over-borrowing by students. Federal annual loan limits and lifetime loan limits establish a maximum amount one can borrow under the federal student loan program. The annual loan limits are designed to pay for two semesters per year (see chart below).

Example: Scheduled Academic Year

Academic Year Semesters

 

Loan Amount

 

 

Scheduled Academic Year 1

 

 

Fall 2010 and Spring 2011

 

 

$5,500

 

 

Scheduled Academic Year 2

 

 

Fall 2011 and Spring 2012

 

 

$6,600

 

 

Scheduled Academic Year 3

 

 

Fall 2012 and Spring 2013

 

 

$7,500

 

 

Scheduled Academic Year 4

 

 

Fall 2013 and Spring 2014

 

 

$7,500

 

 

 

 

 

Total

 

 

$27,000

 

 

For most institutions of higher education, and most students, this works and makes sense. But 3-year degree students often take a third semester’s worth of classes over the summer. The federal limits appear to prevent students from obtaining a loan to pay for those summer courses.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Working with the Congressional Research Service, and the staff of the U.S. Department of Education, my office has identified an option that exists under current regulations to give flexibility on these loan limits to institutions of higher education and students. Instead of following a standard “Scheduled Academic Year” as outlined above, an institution of higher education offering a three-year degree could award loans to students through a “Borrower-Based Academic Year," per the chart below:

Example: Borrower-Based Academic Year

Academic Year

 

Semesters

 

 

Loan Amount

 

 

Scheduled Academic Year 1

 

 

Fall 2010 and Spring 2011

 

 

$5,500

 

 

Scheduled Academic Year 2

 

 

Summer 2011 and Fall 2011

 

 

$6,600

 

 

Scheduled Academic Year 3

 

 

Spring 2012 and Summer 2012

 

 

$7,500

 

 

Scheduled Academic Year 4

 

 

Fall 2012 and Spring 2013

 

 

$7,500

 

 

 

 

 

Total

 

 

$27,000

 

 

This option would use the same annual loan limits and lifetime loan limits, but compress them to match the student’s academic schedule. Compared to the typical “Fall-Spring” academic year over each of the four years, a three-year degree program could use a “Fall-Spring, Summer-Fall, Spring-Summer” structure to allow for a compressed academic schedule.

I have been told that this “Borrower-Based Academic Year” option is currently not well used because it is administratively complicated for institutions to offer both “Scheduled Academic Year” and “Borrower-Based Academic Year” loan structures at the same time for individual students. But for an institution that offers a comprehensive three-year degree program involving a number of students, this seems to make sense as a way of helping students in that program afford the tuition and fees.

I have asked Chancellor Cheek to let me know if this option would work for the University of Tennessee, or if more flexibility needs to be added. When Congress last reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008, we made several changes to the Pell Grant program to allow that funding to be used on a year-round basis. There is no reason students should not have that same flexibility with their student loans.

It is my hope that more institutions will explore innovative ways to provide a high-quality postsecondary education. The three-year degree is one idea for some well-prepared students, but it is vital to our competitiveness as a nation that we develop other ideas to improve the efficiency of higher education and expand access to more Americans.

Institutions of higher education are rightly feeling pressure from parents, students, state and local leaders, the business community, Congress, and the Obama administration to do a better job of providing more Americans with a quality college education at an affordable price. That pressure will likely grow more intense every year as more jobs require higher education, advanced certificates, or technological skills from their applicants.

Some have asked whether all colleges and universities should be required to offer a three-year degree. My answer is a resounding no. Just as the hybrid car isn’t for everyone, all students and all institutions won’t want a three-year degree. The last thing we need is more federal mandates on higher education.

The strength of our higher education system is that we have 6,000 independent, autonomous institutions that compete in the marketplace for students. It is that marketplace that needs to develop the new ideas for the future -- and not become a victim of its own “entrenched success" -- so that our students, and our country, can continue to thrive.

Bio

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He served as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and as president of the University of Tennessee.

 

 

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