Lawmakers FAFSA simplification legislation, as HEA reauthorization in Senate heats up

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Two key senators circulate legislative proposals as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act heats up in Congress.

Study: Text messages about renewing aid boost 2-year college persistence

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Text messages encouraging first-year community college students to fill out federal student aid form boost persistence to sophomore year, study finds.

Distance Education Groups Criticize State Authorization Proposal

A trio of distance education advocates is pressing the U.S. Department of Education to scale back its proposal that would require online programs to be overseen by regulators in each and every state in which they enroll students.

In a letter sent Friday to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the groups warn that the Department of Education’s most recent draft of a “state authorization” rule would, if enacted, lead to “large-scale disruption, confusion and higher costs for students in the short-term” with no long-term benefit. The missive was signed by the heads of The Sloan Consortium, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, and WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies.

The department, citing a concern that some states aren’t doing enough to oversee higher education programs offered to their residents, is again seeking to require that online programs obtain approval from every state in which they enroll students after a court in 2012 blocked such an effort on procedural grounds.

But this time around, department officials have indicated they want to take the rule a step further. Their most recent draft proposal would allow federal funds to flow only to distance education providers that are actively reviewed by state regulators. Such a requirement would essentially require that many states change their current practice of exempting some types of distance education programs from their review process.

A negotiated-rulemaking panel failed to reach consensus on the rule earlier this year. The Education Department is now free to move ahead with re-writing its own version of the rule.  

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Top Senate Republican Seeks To Block College Ratings

Senator Lamar Alexander said Thursday that he plans to attach an amendment to the labor, health, and education appropriations bill that would stop the Obama administration from moving ahead with its college ratings system.

Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate’s education committee, said in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday that the amendment would prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from “using any federal funding to develop, refine, publish or implement a college ratings system.”

He derided the college ratings system as a “taxpayer-funded popularity contest” that would “pick winners and losers.” “It’s not the job of the federal government,” Alexander said. “I have a serious practical concern with the department’s ability even to begin this effort.”

The Obama administration has said the ratings system is needed to provide better consumer information and hold colleges more accountable for their use of taxpayer money.

The spending bill that funds the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education cleared a Senate subcommittee earlier this week. But Democrats have postponed a vote on the measure by the full appropriations committee after Republicans said they would force politically difficult votes relating to President Obama’s health care law.  

The bill’s sponsor, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democrat, said Thursday that the bill is likely to be rolled into an omnibus appropriations package rather than be considered separately on the Senate floor. 

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Senate Republicans block student loan reform legislation

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Senate Republicans prevent passage of legislation to let student loan borrowers lower their interest rates.

Senate panel OKs NIH funding boost, increase to Pell Grant

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National Institutes of Health would see increase of more than 4 percent next year under a Senate budget measure drafted Tuesday. The maximum Pell award would also grow.

Obama Set to Expand Income-Based Repayment Program

President Obama will announce Monday that he plans to expand an income-based repayment program for federal student loan borrowers, The New York Times reported.

The administration plans to broaden eligibility for its Pay As You Earn program – which caps student loan payments at 10 percent of borrowers’ discretionary income and forgives any unpaid debt after 20 years – to include an estimated 5 million additional borrowers who have older loans, according to the Times.

Obama will also formally announce that the Education Department plans to renegotiate the contract it has with federal student loan servicers to include incentives for helping borrowers avoid default. The department previously said it plans to change how it oversees those servicing companies and had said it was “re-examining” how it pays them. Monday’s executive actions come as Senate Democrats are making a push on student debt relief in advance of the fall midterm elections.

Over the weekend, Obama endorsed a bill by Senate Democrats that would allow existing borrowers to lower the interest rate on their student loans. The legislation proposes to fund such a refinancing program by enacting the so-called “Buffett Rule,” which would end some tax breaks for millionaires. Obama said that Congress had a choice to either “protect young people from crushing debt, or protect tax breaks for millionaires.”

Republicans are largely opposed to the proposal. In a statement on Sunday, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, rejected the plan as a “political stunt” to give former students money to pay off their loans. “College graduates don't need a $1-a-day taxpayer subsidy to help pay off a $27,000 loan,” he said. “They need a good job.”

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Study: Grandparents Save for College for Grandchildren

More than half (53 percent) of grandparents are saving for their grandchildren's college costs, or plan to start saving, according to research released Thursday by Fidelity. And 90 percent reported that, if asked, they would be likely to make a financial contribution to their grandchildren's college costs. A majority of grandparents are also talking to both their children and grandchildren about college savings. The national survey was conducted of adults who are at least 45 years old and who have at least one grandchild younger than 18.


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Effort Brewing in Congress to Block College Ratings System

At least one House Republican is seeking to block the Obama administration’s efforts to develop a federal college ratings system.

Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia wrote in an email to his fellow lawmakers last week that he hopes to insert a provision into upcoming spending bills that would prohibit the Education Department from moving ahead with the ratings system. Goodlatte said he was responding to a range of concerns he received from college presidents about the ratings system. “There are real, long-term consequences that could occur if this proposal isn’t stopped, including the loss of choice, diversity, and innovation,” he said in the letter.

The Education Department is in the midst of deciding which metrics to include in its college ratings system, a draft of which officials have said will be ready “by the fall.” The administration says it wants an operational ratings system by the 2015-16 academic year and then plans to ask Congress to tie the ratings to federal student aid by 2018. A top domestic policy aide to President Obama said in an interview with The New York Times this week that the administration was undeterred by criticism of its college ratings proposal and remained strongly committed to the idea.

“For those who are making the argument that we shouldn’t do this, I think those folks could fairly have the impression that we’re not listening,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “There is an element to this conversation which is, ‘We hope to God you don’t do this.’ Our answer to that is: ‘This is happening.’ ”

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Report Urges Tax Code Changes to Help Middle Income Afford College

The federal tax code should do more to help middle-income Americans afford college -- but that goal can be accomplished without the sort of wholesale restructuring of higher education tax benefits that many are advocating, the Center for American Progress argues in a paper to be released today. In the paper, some of the center's experts urge changes that would cap certain benefits and expand others, with the overall goal of encouraging more savings by middle income Americans. Many of the tax code benefits for higher education now greatly favor wealthy Americans, the report says.

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