William J. Lennox Jr., the new president of Saint Leo University, has decided to skip an inaugural. "A day or more centered around me seems at odds with our student-centered mission. Quite honestly, it is not who I am or what I want to represent as your president," he wrote in an email message to students and faculty members. So to honor his new position, the university will award 20 one-time $2,500 scholarships, funded by a donor. The awards will be called inauguration scholarships.
Many student loan borrowers who could qualify for the federal government's income-based repayment plans do not participate in them, and the Education Department has not done enough to make borrowers aware of their repayment options, the Government Accountability Office said in a report Thursday.
The Obama administration has worked hard in recent months to bolster the number of borrowers in its income-based repayment programs, which it has expanded and heavily promoted, and it reported some success last month. But the GAO report, which was requested by some Democratic members of Congress, said that fewer than one in seven holders of direct student loans were paying them back based on their income levels, while more than half were eligible for the programs that would allow them to do so.
Most previous efforts to introduce transparency to college financial aid have not resulted in their intended changes. But a new policy that the White House announced this past Sunday has been described as a game changer. And it is.
Beginning in 2016 for the 2017-18 academic year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will be available earlier -- in October rather than January -- and students will be able to use income information from tax returns completed two years before they apply rather than the previous year. Allowing students to use this so-called prior-prior year (PPY) income data for the FAFSA moves the financial aid process forward in unprecedented ways.
When I began my career in admissions 24 years ago, my standard spiel included the following line: “Don’t rule out any college because of its sticker price, because you have no idea how much any college will cost until you apply, get admitted, and hear about scholarships and financial aid.” That line is just as relevant today, despite the changing landscape for higher education and admissions.
It has not been the most reassuring statement for students, and it has assumed a leap of faith from many families that we’ve not yet earned. But it has represented the reality of the college search and selection process. That reality has opened colleges and universities up to criticism that we are being elusive about cost and price and have not been providing the transparency we should to close the deal on a four-year partnership with students and families.
It has been a problematic aspect of the college search and selection process, but one on which work has continued to be done, with varying levels of success, to introduce simplicity and clarity.
First, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s mandated Net Price Calculator (NPC). But unfortunately, the NPC has done nothing to address the wait-and-see approach to paying for college. Instead, the NPC simply added another layer of complication and estimation that does nothing to provide the kind of insight we had hoped to give students, simplify the process of applying for financial aid or help families coming to terms with final cost of an advanced degree. (The truth is that, for many colleges, the NPC added more administrative costs, which are passed along to students.)
The Department of Education and the Gates Foundation have also called for simplifying the FAFSA as the solution. But higher education and the financial aid world seem to have only lukewarm support for making the FAFSA easier, because it could be oversimplified to the point that it is no longer useful or accurate. And some people predict that such efforts will lead more colleges to use more customized institutional forms or adopt other standardized applications for financial aid like the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile.
This spring the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators issued a report about implementing prior-prior year income data for the FAFSA and some of the implications. Are there concerns and uncertainties about it? Yes. Will this force colleges and universities to change? Yes. Will traditional admissions practices be impacted? Yes. Will other enrollment professionals and I have to get creative to respond to a new admissions calendar? Yes.
Yet, despite those uncertainties and concerns, PPY, a truly student-centered solution, is ultimately good for the college search and selection process and the feds should be commended for this forward-thinking simplification of the financial aid process. Most important, will it simplify processes for families and make our complex system a bit easier for them to navigate? Undoubtedly.
Some of the major benefits include:
PPY will allow students to file their FAFSA much earlier. Instead of waiting until Jan. 1, after college applications have mostly been submitted, the financial aid application process now will align more closely with timelines for the traditional application process. PPY relies on tax returns and information completed before the senior year, so aid awards can be given much earlier in the recruitment and admissions process, consequently providing students and their families with valuable information about cost earlier.
Some within higher education circles will complain that this new timeline may result in more “shopping” by families from institution to institution, but I can’t imagine it being any worse than it is already. Imagine being able to provide real-time financial aid information to a student when they are most excited about your college, rather than telling them they have to jump through a bunch of hoops and then wait weeks, or even months.
PPY will allow most students to use the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool. PPY would be a dream come true for those who advocate for simplicity. The Data Retrieval Tool, which is one of more positive developments that we’ve seen to improve the financial aid process in recent years, could be used to complete a FAFSA more accurately and with greater ease.
Moreover, since the FAFSA and financial aid award time frames have not kept pace with that of the college search, using PPY would eliminate the estimating that inevitably leads to confusion, delays and other potential problems in the financial aid process. PPY would also be friendlier to family-owned businesses and those students with complicated tax situations, often requiring extensions beyond April 15 for tax filing -- which does not allow some families to complete accurate tax information during what is now known as financial aid season. And since universal college decision day is May 1, these families often have to make a college choice without all of the necessary information.
PPY will result in more students accessing aid for which they are eligible. Because PPY relies on existing tax information and a new FAFSA could be populated using the Data Retrieval Tool, it has the potential to be more inviting for students who are turned off by the perceived complexity of the FAFSA and therefore opt not to complete it. Why wouldn’t we want to make it easier for these students to apply for and actually receive aid for which they are eligible, instead of having them opt out and ultimately miss out?
These students are likely to take out student loans to pay for college or perhaps take a semester off to earn tuition money -- only never to return. PPY is about access and choice, which are two of the most important defining qualities of the U.S. higher education system. Everyone should be excited about the prospect of greater accessibility to a college degree and realistic choices for paying for it.
If our goals are to provide earlier information about cost, to simplify the application process and to increase access to higher education and to financial aid available, then PPY -- regardless of the potential complications and anxiety for public policy makers and higher education professionals -- is one of the most important changes to the financial aid process in a generation. And, for me, it’s a great development because it is a win for students.
Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.
Submitted by Don Francis on September 11, 2015 - 3:00am
On the presidential campaign trail, we’re seeing one so-called progressive candidate after another call for the federal government to enact major new spending programs to hold down tuition at public universities. Here’s the thing -- the results would be regressive: the prime beneficiaries of these proposals will be wealthier students who currently do not receive means-tested federal dollars.
Let me confess: I have spent the last 24 years of my life representing private colleges and universities in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and to the Pennsylvania congressional delegation. Because of that I know that the private four-year colleges and universities in Pennsylvania enroll a similar proportion of Pell Grant recipients as are enrolled at our state’s public universities, 24 percent versus 30 percent. I also know that with a few exceptions the average family income of students attending our name-brand public universities exceeds or approximates that of our private college and university students.
I get the politics of the candidates’ proposals. I understand that families are worried about paying for college. I understand that some students assume too much debt (though the average debt assumed for an undergraduate degree is a very worthwhile investment that returns far more value than a comparable loan for a new car). I understand that promising people they can attend a public university debt free is a popular political statement intended to help win an election. But let’s at least call this what it is: a cynical political proposal that is regressive in its use of government dollars to benefit upper-middle- and upper-income families.
I would like to believe that these “progressive” candidates are poorly informed about the realities of higher education finance and don’t realize that public colleges and universities for decades have been using their state-subsidized price advantage, their athletic programs and their investment in more amenities and “star” research faculty to become more selective and enroll higher and higher-income students. The correlation between income and test scores has been demonstrated repeatedly. In general, the more selective institutions become, the higher the family income of the students who attend.
Consequently, if you provide additional federal and state aid to a select group of public institutions and to the disadvantage of the private institutions with which they compete, then the government-favored institutions will ultimately become more popular, will have more students to choose from and will select the highest performers. From an institutional perspective, you are simply using your place in the marketplace to strengthen the quality of your institution by recruiting better students and making your faculty and alumni very happy. Perfectly reasonable approach for the institutions.
From a public policy perspective, however, this has many unfortunate consequences if your goal, as a country, is to increase access to quality higher education for low-income students or students who need extra preparation to make it through college.
First, those subsidies meant to make the public university more affordable will actually make it more difficult for lower-income and underrepresented students to gain admission, as they must compete with higher-income students (many of whom now attend private universities) seeking the generous government subsidy.
Second, these new federal and state government subsidies devoted to public universities will certainly result in the loss of students and tuition income at the vast majority of private colleges and universities. A relatively few private colleges and universities have enough wealth and national reputation to compete with an even larger government subsidy at the public universities. Many private colleges could be forced to close their doors if enrollment drops. Private institutions are performing a very important public service by educating hundreds of thousands of Pell Grant students each year -- 58,882 in Pennsylvania alone in 2012-13. If these institutions disappear, who is going to educate these low-income students? Not only will they struggle to get into some of the public universities, but many will struggle academically if they do get in, because the larger size and anonymity of public universities will make the learning environment less conducive for success.
Finally, all we have to do is to look at what happened the last time the federal government demanded that the states maintain their funding for the public universities to see how low-income students were hurt. As part of the stimulus package intended to shorten the 2007-8 recession, Congress required that states maintain funding to their public universities in order to receive federal stimulus dollars. As a result of this policy, several states -- including mine -- reduced their spending on need-based aid. Yes, upper-income students who didn’t receive need-based state grants received help through this increased government support to hold their tuition down. But the low-income students attending these same public universities saw their need-based grants cut and had to pay more for their college education.
These are regressive, not progressive policies.
In praising these “debt free” public university initiatives, one former Obama adviser spoke dismissively of vouchers for students, saying that the federal government needed to give money directly to public institutions. I believe that using institutional funding instead of vouchers to students (Pell Grants and state need-based aid programs) guarantees that taxpayer money will be wasted on those without need, while many with need will be left behind even further than they are today. Would a progressive even consider eliminating means-tested food stamps and replacing them with publicly subsidized grocery stores for all who want the government subsidy? Even worse, would they do this knowing that these grocery stores don’t have to allow all people to come in? In fact, that many of these grocery stores generally serve a population whose family income exceeds the national average?
Providing federal dollars to states to help subsidize low tuition at the public universities is a great idea if your ultimate goal is to pander to the public’s desire to have someone else pay for what is one of the most costly investments you can make in yourself or the members of your family.
However, it is also one of the most regressive economic stances you can take when put into practice, and we should stop pretending there is anything progressive about these proposals. Populist maybe, but not progressive.
Don Francis is president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Department of Education should largely keep its current model for student loan servicing, but officials should set higher and more consistent standards for the companies they hire to do that work, according to recommendations issued Friday by an interagency task force.
The recommendations will inform the Education Department’s new contract with loan servicers that it expects to sign at some point next year.
The task force, convened by the Obama administration earlier this year as part of a push to improve federal student loan servicing, suggested in a report that the Education Department continue to have multiple contractors who compete among themselves for new loan servicing business from the government. The government should pay contractors extra to help borrowers deemed at a high risk of default and it should standardize some of their activities as they compete among themselves for new accounts, the report says. For example, all contractors should be required to provide borrowers with information about income-based repayment programs.