studentaid

Negotiators for federal loan panel tilt toward consumer protection

Negotiators tapped to debate mostly technical changes in student loan rules have more of an activist bent.

U.S. Abandons Plan to Deduct Veterans' Debts from Payments to Colleges

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday hastily withdrew a policy change that would have allowed the agency to deduct from its tuition payments to colleges any debts that student veterans owed the government from their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. The approach, which college officials had learned about this week via e-mail from a regional office of the veterans' agency, caused immediate consternation among campus veterans' education administrators and others, who feared they would then be put in the awkward position of becoming the government's debt collectors from their own students. "[T]he school will get shorted money and be expected to recoup it from the Veterans," one administrator wrote on a listserv for veterans' officials. "This is going to make the schools VERY mad."

A spokesman for the veterans' agency said in a statement late Thursday:  “System changes installed this week allowed for collection of Post-9/11 Bill debts from all education benefit payments issued to or on behalf of the student.  However, because these changes had not been fully vetted, they have been withdrawn effective today.”

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Essay: Washington college grant program favors vocational over liberal education

Last year, as Washington State faced a severe budget crisis, legislators embraced a novel way to fund student financial aid: a public-private partnership between the state and private corporations. Called the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the fund attracts private donations and matches them with public money in order to support students in science, technology, and other “high demand” fields.

As Inside Higher Ed reporter Paul Fain wrote, “the thinking in Washington was that if corporations had more direct control of how their donations were used, they might be more inclined to give. “ This is exactly right -- Boeing and Microsoft quickly pledged $50 million -- but the creation of the fund must be placed in the broader context of state defunding of public higher education.

Washington’s legislators, like their counterparts around the nation, are shifting the purposes of college away from the civic and personal toward the economic and vocational, undermining the broader goals that have historically been part of American college education. (Even in the 1862 Morrill Act providing federal support for colleges in “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” legislators recognized that college education demands both “liberal and practical education.”)

The idea for the fund originated in a task force established in summer 2010 by Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat. The task force was made up of 16 members and chaired by Brad Smith, a senior vice president at Microsoft. The vast majority of task force members represented the business community. There were a smattering of higher education administrators, but no faculty or students. There was only one elected leader, the mayor of Everett, Wash. The task force’s composition alone makes clear Governor Gregoire’s approach to higher education: align it with the needs of the state’s major corporations.

Nowhere on the panel were the other interests of society represented. There were no social workers, no doctors or nurses, no ministers; there were no teachers nor civil servants; there were no artists, no writers. It should not be surprising, then, that the task force recommended a financial aid policy that not only offers corporations tax breaks but allows them to determine which college programs are worthwhile. As a Tacoma News Tribune editor wrote, there would be more aid for some students, but less for those “pursuing a degree in, say, history or business or education.”

Such an approach challenges the idea that a collegiate education is a liberal education first and a vocational education second. It ignores the civic and personal purposes of liberal education. It threatens the general education curriculum designed to prepare future leaders. It reduces students’ ability to choose majors based on their own interests, goals, and values (unless of course they are already wealthy enough to turn down financial aid).

But the scholarship fund is only one piece of Washington legislators’ larger effort to transform the broader purposes of college. Although the per-student cost of educating a college student in Washington has not changed dramatically, the share of that cost paid for by students and families has grown substantially. This shifting burden makes it harder for students to take a chance with a liberal arts major, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also means that students and their families are paying more for college and looking for ways to save money.

In response, legislators have been offering students ways around colleges’ general education requirements. Unlike a major, general education is the heart of the curriculum because it represents what all students must learn to graduate. It is designed to ensure that students receive the kind of broad education in the arts and sciences that will allow them to grow as human beings and be better civic leaders. The liberal arts also offer students the skills employers most desire: the ability to think, analyze, write, and find creative solutions to problems.

But legislators have no interest in these broad goals and want students to get their general education requirements out of the way fast. For example, Washington’s “Running Start” program urges students to take general education courses in high school, where it is cheaper for students and the state. A more recent program authorizes high school teachers to teach college credit courses in partnership with local colleges. Both programs send students the signal that general education courses are a hurdle to overcome and not worth students’ time and money.

Last year, Washington policy makers launched a serious attack on liberal arts education. First, they authorized the establishment of Western Governors University-Washington, an online institution with no faculty and the most minimal of liberal arts requirements. Instead, WGU promises students degrees in vocational fields as fast as they can earn them. Second, legislators urged colleges to design three-year degrees for advanced students, which would probably mean limiting their time on campus to receive a broad education. And, finally, legislators established the Opportunity Scholarship Fund.

Other states are moving in similar directions, embracing online institutions, urging colleges to adopt three-year programs, questioning the value of the liberal arts, and shifting general education courses online to get them done cheaply and quickly. This is true even for such prestigious institutions as the University of California. And, as Montana State University students argued, such an approach denigrates a general liberal arts education, “effectively tainting the goal of a program aimed at educating students in a variety of subjects.”

The broader context in which the Opportunity Scholarship Fund is situated should trouble all Americans. It threatens to transform the very purpose of college education. At a time when many commentators are noting the economic value of a liberal arts education, and our foreign competitors are embracing the liberal arts college model, it seems shortsighted for us to turn our back on it. More important, by reducing students’ access to the liberal arts, they, and our society, will lose something extremely valuable.

Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University.

Berkeley Unveils New Aid Plan for Middle-Class Students

The University of California at Berkeley announced a new plan for middle class California families sending their children to the university. Under the plan, those with family incomes of $80,000 to $140,000 would have to pay only 15 percent of that income to go to Berkeley. The plan is similar to those in place at many elite private colleges, but Berkeley officials believe it is unique at a public institution. Berkeley officials said that they believed existing aid programs worked well for those from low incomes, but that those with slightly more money found it increasingly difficult to pay for college.

 

 

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Large Deficit in Illinois Prepaid Tuition Program

The Illinois prepaid tuition program is short by about 30 percent -- or nearly $560 million -- to meet the obligations it has made to families, The Chicago Tribune reported. The article is based on a new report by actuarial accountants. The state stopped selling new contracts in the program in September, but has yet to figure out how to meet the commitments the program has already made.

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2012 Budget Includes Changes for Pell

Congressional negotiators are close to reaching agreement on a $1 trillion budget for the federal government in 2012, with a vote expected by the end of the week. The measure would draw from competing House and Senate budget plans to pay for the Pell Grant Program, enacting changes to both the grant program itself and to subsidized undergraduate student loans.

The six-month grace period on subsidized student loans, in which the government currently pays the interest after a borrower leaves college, would be eliminated, saving about $400 million for the fiscal year. The length of time over which a student can be eligible for a Pell Grant would reportedly also be cut to 12 semesters from the current 18, which would affect about 62,000 students, according to a lobbyist with a higher education association. Students without a high school diploma or equivalent credential will also reportedly be barred from receiving Pell Grants, and the family income at which the government would expect a recipient of federal financial aid to contribute nothing to the cost of his or her education would drop from $30,000 to $20,000 per year.

Senate Democrats had proposed the change to the interest rate subsidy; the other cuts were drawn from a House Republican budget plan. But other proposed cuts in the House plan would not be enacted, including a proposed change to the income protection allowance that the American Council on Education estimated could affect up to 400,000 students.

Full details on the final bill are expected today.

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Occupy protests focusing increasingly on student debt

Student debt has emerged as a major focus of the protests. Some worry that prospective students are hearing the wrong message -- while others see important shifts in the political debate about borrowing.

End of a Military Full Ride?

WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department is said to be considering changes to its tuition assistance for active-duty military members that would make students responsible for up to 25 percent of tuition costs. The budget-cutting move would affect more than 300,000 students who receive tuition assistance, especially those who pay less than $250 per credit hour -- a group that includes many community college students as well as students at for-profit institutions, which frequently tie their tuition prices for military service members to the maximum benefit payment.

Loans and the Deficit

In deficit-minded times, student aid has already proven to be a potential casualty. As interest rates go up but need-based aid stays level, expect more of the same, experts say.

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