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U.S. Seeks Experiments on New Models of Higher Ed

The Obama administration is moving ahead with plans to waive certain federal student aid rules for a limited number of colleges that want to experiment with competency-based education and other innovative forms of higher education.

Officials are soliciting suggestions on what those experiments should look like, according to a notice set to be published in the Federal Register this week. The Education Department said it is “particularly interested in experiments that are designed to improve student persistence and academic success, result in shorter time to degree, including by allowing students to advance through educational courses and programs at their own pace by demonstrating academic achievement, and reduce reliance on student loans.”

The department gave three examples of the types of innovations it may approve: competency-based education, dual enrollment of high school students in higher education, and prior learning assessment.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in remarks at a student aid conference Wednesday that the experiments will allow colleges to “pursue responsible innovations to increase college value and affordability.”

The Obama administration first announced in August that it wanted to use its “experimental sites” authority to pilot higher education innovations aimed at lowering costs while maintain quality.

President Obama said in a speech on the economy Wednesday that his administration was “pursuing an aggressive strategy to promote innovation that reins in tuition costs.”

The push for federal funding for higher education innovations has been aggressive elsewhere in Washington as well. Several education foundations and think tanks have embraced alternative models of higher education, and the issue is attracting attention from a growing number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.  

The Education Department said it wants to hear experiment proposals from colleges, businesses, philanthropies and state agencies. The suggestions are due by January 31 of next year.

Education Department Launches Site Aimed at Guidance Counselors

The Obama administration on Wednesday unveiled a new web portal aimed at the people who help students and families prepare for college.

The site aggregates a range of Education Department resources and promotional material meant to encourage students to attend college and take advantage of federal student aid programs. Guidance counselors and other mentors are able to search a database containing infographics, fact sheets, videos, and other presentation materials relating to the financial aid process. 

The new effort comes as the administration is increasingly using its bully pulpit to promote college access. First Lady Michelle Obama has recently begun speaking out on higher education. And, after hosting a series of meetings with college presidents over the past several months about boosting low-income students’ access to higher education, the White House plans to hold a symposium on the topic December 11. It’s not yet clear if administration officials will announce any new policy proposals at that event, which is set to feature business leaders, philanthropists and college presidents.  

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Students Blame Colleges for Debt Woes

A national poll of four-year college students has found that they are more likely to blame colleges than other institutions for the rising levels of student debt. The poll, by the Harvard University Institute of Politics, found that 68 percent of those polled viewed student debt for young people as a major problem, while 21 percent viewed it as a minor problem. Asked who was "most responsible" for rising levels of student debt, students cited the following:

  • Colleges: 42 percent
  • Federal government: 30 percent
  • State governments: 9 percent
  • Students: 8 percent
  • Other: 4 percent
  • Refused to answer: 7 percent
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Study: Out-of-Pocket Costs in Most of Higher Education Rising

Students during the 2011-12 academic year paid, on average, higher immediate out-of-pocket costs to attend public and private colleges than their counterparts in 2007-8, according to a new federal report released Tuesday.

The average out-of-pocket net price -- a college’s sticker price minus all forms of financial aid -- increased by $800 at both private not-for-profit and public four-year universities, after adjusting for inflation. At community colleges, the same figure rose by $400.

The for-profit sector was the only one to see a decrease between 2011-12 and 2007-8. Across all for-profit institutions, the average out-of-pocket net price fell from $11,500 to $9,900 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Still, the average out-of-pocket net price at two-year for-profit institutions ($12,400) was more than double the figure at two-year public institutions ($6,000) in 2011-12. 

The out-of-pocket net price essentially represents the amount of money a student has to pay up front while attending college. It doesn’t include the value of loans that have to be repaid or the long-term cost of such debt.  The data come from the Education Department’s latest National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which is completed every four years. 

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Federal regulators finalize rule to provide more oversight of student loan servicers

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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has finalized its authority to more closely monitor student loan servicing companies to make sure they're following the law and not misleading consumers. 

Jail Time for Ex-Administrator Who Stole Student Aid

A federal judge on Monday approved a plea agreement under which Anna Catalan, formerly an administrator at Santiago Canyon College, was sentenced to 21 months in jail for stealing student aid, The Orange County Register reported. Some of the money she took was for her family members or on behalf of students who didn't qualify for the federal support. But in other cases, she took money that was supposed to go to students who qualified for the aid, and she told the students that there was no money for them. Without a plea agreement, she faced up to 20 years in jail.

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2 Democrats plan legislation to promote competency-based ed and rate colleges

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Two senators join the increasingly crowded Washington bandwagon for alternative forms of higher education to have access to federal funding. They also want college aid tied to institutional performance.

Education Dept. Extends Talks on ‘Gainful Employment’

The federally appointed committee tasked with rewriting the Obama administration’s “gainful employment” regulations will continue its deliberations in December, an Education Department official said on Wednesday. Negotiations over the rules were slated to end Wednesday, but members of the panel were not close to reaching an agreement after more than five full days of debate over the last several months. The committee is charged with rewriting rules that were blocked by a federal judge earlier this year. 

The regulations would condition federal student aid to career-training programs at for-profit and community colleges on their ability to meet certain standards. The department is proposing metrics that would judge graduates’ earnings relative to their earnings, the rate at which former students default on their student loans and whether former students are paying down at least the interest on their loans.

Negotiators were still at odds Wednesday over how those standards should be set, which programs ought to be exempt, and what information schools should be required to disclose to students.  

Representatives from for-profit and community colleges said the rules would unfairly harm their institutions, punishing them for enrolling low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students. Several members of the panel have also said they cannot effectively discuss the department’s latest proposal, which is more stringent than previous drafts, until the department releases an analysis of how the rules would impact institutions.

Department officials have said they are in the process of producing that data on how many programs would pass or fail under its proposal. John Kolotos, the department's representative on the committee, told negotiators Wednesday that the data would be available before the next meeting in December. That session has not yet been scheduled.  The department would be bound by a set of regulations that the panel unanimously supports but would be free to push ahead with its own proposal if negotiators failed to reach an agreement. 

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Department of Education teases expansion of 'experimental sites'

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At online learning conference, federal officials say Education Department will soon loosen regulations for institutions experimenting with new forms of assessment.

U.S. to Form Panel To Write New Rules on Aid, State Authorization

The U.S. Education Department announced Tuesday its plan to convene a panel of negotiators to hammer out new regulations on how colleges disburse federal student aid and rewrite a controversial rule requiring online programs to obtain permission from each state in which they enroll students.

The negotiated rule making committee is also expected to tackle the underwriting standards for PLUS loans, the conversion of clock hours to credit hours when awarding credit, and rules governing when a student can receive federal aid for repeated coursework, according to a notice set to appear in Wednesday’s Federal Register.

The department plans to appoint negotiators who represent various constituencies, including students, consumer advocates, businesses, state officials and representatives from different types of institutions. It is currently seeking nominations for members of the committee. The panel will meet for three, three-day sessions in February, March and April, the department said.

The list of topics announced Tuesday, while tentative, largely round out the remaining issues that the Obama administration had announced as regulatory priorities for its second term. The department has already announced its plan to hold a separate negotiated rule making session in January to write new campus safety rules. It is also in the process of negotiating a rewrite of the “gainful employment” rules on for-profit and community colleges that a federal judge blocked earlier this year. That committee met Tuesday for its penultimate day of negotiations and appears destined to finish its work without reaching consensus on a set of rules, leaving the department in the position of being able to impose its own rules.

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