Members of Congress this week heard from higher education advocates and researchers on ways to restructure the federal government’s student aid programs as lawmakers continue their series of hearings on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. The education committees in both chambers convened separate hearings Wednesday and Thursday to discuss various ways to change federal student aid. Lawmakers heard about simplifying the administrative barriers for students applying for aid, restructuring Pell Grants to better incentivize completion, and improving income-based repayment options for student borrowers.
Lawmakers on both sides appeared to be in agreement that the application process to apply for federal aid needs to be simpler. Both Senators Tom Harkin and Lamar Alaxander, respectively the Democratic chair and Republican ranking member of the Senate education committee, said Thursday they believed there was a general consensus on simplifying the process by which students apply for federal aid.
Proposals on simplifying how the federal government doles out billions of dollars in grants, loans and education tax credits each year, meanwhile, are likely to be more fraught.
Today the Senate is holding a hearing on student aid and college access with a focus on simplification, in advance of the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Focusing on streamlining federal student aid and making the various programs more flexible is a well-reasoned approach in a fiscal environment where increases in federal funding for the programs appear unlikely. Here are three recommendations policy makers can apply immediately to simplify programs and increase college access:
1. Better align financial aid applications with college admissions by using prior-prior year
Each year a student is enrolled in postsecondary education, he or she must submit a FAFSA to be considered for federal student aid (grants, loans, work-study). Under the current structure, the FAFSA becomes available Jan. 1 and requires tax information from the prior year (PY). However, most students and families haven’t even filed their taxes by then, making it difficult to complete the form in totality. This delay can cause an unfavorable chain reaction: a delay in submitting the FAFSA due to lack of tax information can result in a delayed financial aid award letter, which in some cases could lead to a reduced amount of financial aid, at least when it comes to aid that is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
The use of prior-prior year (PPY) income on the FAFSA would have multiple benefits for students and families. These benefits include the ability to: file the FAFSA earlier, often at the time they are applying to college; make better use of the current IRS data retrieval tool, which allows automatic population of a student’s tax return data; receive notification of a financial aid package earlier; and streamline the college-going process by applying for financial aid the same time they are applying for admissions.
This would be welcome news for students who need financial aid the most -- who also happen to be the most likely to miss current financial aid deadlines and overestimate college costs, according to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an Illinois financial aid official.
The best part? The U.S. secretary of education was already given the authority to implement PPY over five years ago, so Congressional action is not needed to implement this idea.
While there are some concerns about using PPY as a proxy for current financial strength, it is important to remember that prior year information is also a proxy. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators recently released a study on the impact of using PPY data and found that for most of the lowest-income students, using PPY versus PY did not greatly impact the amount of Pell that a student received.
2. Implement an early Pell notification, or “Pell Promise”
Low-income students often decide at an early age that college is too costly and therefore just “not for them.” Enrollment data underscore this pattern, with 52 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolling in postsecondary education compared to 82 percent of high-income graduates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Even for low-income students who do go on to college, many are self-selecting out of competitive or elite schools that would have been less expensive than where they ultimately attend. (This issue of "undermatching" has recently attracted significant attention from President Obama, as well as the first lady.)
One recent study of a sample of high school valedictorians found that only 50 percent of those from low-income backgrounds even applied to a selective university, compared to roughly 80 percent of the valedictorians from upper-middle and high-income families. Unfortunately, when a student decides early on that higher education is not an option, it impacts their high school coursework choices and college enrollment behaviors.
A “Pell Promise” -- a commitment of funds from the federal government as early as the ninth grade -- would make low-income students aware of their Pell grant eligibility in much the same way that the Social Security Administration disseminates information to citizens about the amount of social security they can expect in retirement.
While not technically a promised income, Social Security statements allow individuals to plan for an eventual retirement. A Pell promise would assure low-income students that a specific amount of funds would be available to them upon successful completion of high school and incentivize early college-going behaviors and patterns. Early studies from similar state-based programs, such as the 21st Century Scholars Program in Indiana, have shown that when students and parents know there are funds available to them for higher education, there are noticeable increases in college preparatory coursework and college going rates.
Identifying low-income students early would not be difficult given IRS data and other federal and state means-tested benefit programs. This change would also be easy to implement since the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) already authorized a similar demonstration program, although funds were never appropriated to fulfill the program.
3. Provide flexibility in the Pell Grant program through a “Pell Well” of funds.
The current system of Pell Grant delivery is based on the traditional spring/fall calendar and the traditional student. A student may wish to move through their program at an accelerated pace by taking courses each summer, yet under the current Pell Grant rules, that student would run out of Pell eligibility and be forced into loans to cover academic costs or defer additional enrollment until the next year. This structure is outdated and confusing to families, particularly as nontraditional students and innovative programs with nonstandard academic calendars proliferate.
To increase flexibility and encourage students to complete at a quicker pace, lawmakers could implement a Pell Well system, whereby a student’s lifetime Pell Grant eligibility would be calculated when the student initially applies for aid. The student would then be able to draw funds from their well of Pell Grant at their own pace, not to exceed a certain amount per payment period.
This is different than how Pell eligibility is currently calculated, which is based on telling students annually how much they qualify for in Pell funds and then trying to explain future Pell eligibility as a percentage of full time enrollment. Students and parents understand dollars, not percentages, and they increasingly require predictability and flexibility. Such a change would both simplify and streamline the program, and incentivize continuous enrollment and higher retention and graduation rates.
As Congress considers various proposals through HEA hearings, and as grant makers and college access advocates continue to think of ways to reimagine student aid, we should remember that manageable and realistic changes like these could have a huge impact on college access and success.
Justin Draeger is president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Children with professional parents are about three times likelier than those with working-class parents to be admitted to the most selective universities in England and Australia as well as the United States, according to a study reported by Times Higher Education. The study, produced in conjunction with a conference sponsored by the Sutton Trust, a British philanthropy focused on educational access for those with low-income backgrounds, concludes that while a significant portion of the gap in access can be explained by differences in educational preparation, about a quarter of it cannot.
The neediest college students are the least likely to meet the deadlines for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to a new study by Mary Feeney, associate professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The study was published in The Journal of Student Financial Aid. The odds of completing the application go up if the student has a parent or another adult who understands the process who can help.
The sales pitch is enticing: Let students go to college for "free" and ask them to pay later by taxing a percentage of their incomes once they have jobs. The money coming in from graduates, then pays "forward," covering college costs for current students and alleviating the fear of debt that keeps many college-qualified students from even applying and that discourages college graduates from pursuing careers that may not have high salaries.
That’s the seductive premise behind Pay It Forward, billed as a "debt-free" approach to higher education, currently under consideration in Oregon. But like many sales pitches meant to lure consumers, Pay It Forward provides a superficial "fix" that has more downsides than up, thereby masking the real problems in higher education financing.
There is no disputing that higher education is facing a crisis of affordability. State funding per student has dropped to its lowest level in 25 years, shifting much of the financial responsibility for college costs to students and their families. The result? Too many students have to choose between avoiding college altogether or taking on overwhelming amounts of debt to pay for a degree.
We applaud state policymakers who are working to identify ways to rein in college costs. The United States needs more college-educated workers, and we won’t have them unless we make college more affordable. But we have to make sure that the solutions we put into place don’t work against students and taxpayers by inflating college costs even more, especially for the families who can least afford them.
Because Pay It Forward proposes to tax graduates’ income at a certain rate every year (say 4 percent) for up to 25 years, graduates will end up paying very different amounts for their education — often more than what that education actually cost. An analysis from the Oregon Center for Public Policy estimates that an average student could overpay more than $7,000 under Pay It Forward. Worse, the neediest students — those currently receiving federal or state financial aid — could be hit the hardest, potentially paying thousands more over their lifetimes than they would have under the current system.
Let’s not forget, either, that Pay It Forward only addresses tuition, which makes up just part of total college costs; room and board, books and supplies, and miscellaneous fees aren’t covered. At the University of Oregon, for example, those additional fees amount to almost 60 percent of a student’s total costs. Of the $23,370 total estimated cost of a year at Oregon for a resident of the state, about $9,300 is consumed by tuition. Under Pay It Forward, the average student would have to cover the remaining $14,000 out of pocket or through loans, creating a double whammy for students: They’d have to pay off student loan debt in addition to having their income taxed to "pay it forward."
Some of these concerns could be addressed in any final package. Our biggest concern with Pay It Forward, though, is that it doesn’t address the root issue: rapidly escalating college costs. By positioning higher education less as a public good than as an individual transaction, Pay It Forward absolves both state policymakers and institutional leaders of any responsibility for doing what it takes to slow the rapid increases in the cost of a college education.
Instead of demanding cost-consciousness among college presidents and an ongoing commitment from states to maintain or increase higher education funding, Pay It Forward simply puts a big Band-Aid over the current trend of state disinvestment and the transfer of financial burden from the state to students and their families. Ironically, although trying to ensure progressively that each graduating class opens the door for ones to follow, Pay It Forward could actually just open the door to more privatization of public education.
States should develop innovative solutions to the rising cost of college, but they should be transparent about them. If they’re going to sell students on debt-free college, they should offer debt-free college. Loan debt simply repackaged as delayed tuition payments may be a catchy sales pitch, but it’s a bad bargain for students.
Kati Haycock is president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.