CHICAGO -- Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that he remains open to having his agency cancel the federal student loans of some borrowers who attended Corinthian Colleges.
“Everything’s on the table,” Duncan said during remarks at the Education Writers Association conference here.
Duncan said that the Education Department was working to figure out “a fair and impartial” way to handle the more than 250 claims filed by former Corinthian students formally asking to have their debt canceled.
They have pointed to a mostly dormant provision of federal law that allows borrowers to assert misconduct by a college as a reason why they shouldn’t be legally responsible for repaying their loans.
Over the past 15 years “we’ve had, like, four of these cases,” Duncan said Tuesday. “So we don’t have a lot of practice on this. The rules aren’t very clear.”
“There are certain things in the law that students would have to prove” in order to have their loans canceled, he added.
Duncan also framed the Corinthian debt forgiveness issue in the larger context of the administration’s crackdown on for-profit colleges. The department last week fined Corinthian-owned Heald College $30 million over allegations it misrepresented job placement rates.
“We’re trying to make up for some real wrongs at the back end,” Duncan said.
Separately, state regulators in California announced this week that they have ordered Corinthian’s campuses operating under the Everest and WyoTech brands to stop enrolling new students. The emergency action, which takes effect Thursday, means that only a handful of remaining Corinthian-owned campuses, such as its Rochester, N.Y., and Phoenix locations, are allowed to seek new students.
California's consumer protection agency on Tuesday ordered Corinthian Colleges' campuses in the state to stop enrolling students after tomorrow, the Orange County Registerreported. An official of the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education said the order would "protect individuals who may have been thinking about enrolling at these schools." The California agency's move is the latest blow -- among many -- for the crumbling for-profit provider; last week, the U.S. Education Department fined the company $30 million.
Gooooood morning, San Antonio! A big Texas “Buenos días!” to all gathered there at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for the 95th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges.
A convention hall filled with 1,800 educators? Let’s go Socratic. Questions trump answers.
Raise your hand if you are on food stamps. Nobody? OK, did anyone this morning have an expense-account breakfast or a free breakfast from one of the corporate sponsors? Didn’t the tuition and fees from the nation’s nine million (by President Obama’s count) community college students pay for all the meals here in San Antonio? The plane fares? The hotels?
Question: How many community college students are on food stamps? I don’t know, either. No one seems to. I’ve asked the AACC. I’ve asked the U.S. Department of Education. No luck so far. Raise your hand if students can sign up for food stamps on your campus. Yes, I see a few.
Now, break into groups of two or three. Question: What will you say to one of those students from your community college who is on food stamps? What are you doing here at a convention that doesn’t have questions about hunger -- or the euphemism "food insecurity" -- at least anywhere I could find on the four-day agenda?
Why am I asking? I went to work at a community college to teach College Writing I. I’ve spent as much time, with colleagues, helping students at Bunker Hill Community College sign up for and recertify their food stamps as I have teaching.
Question: What are the big food days at the convention this year? From the schedule I have, it’s a tie -- Sunday, one lunch, nine receptions, and a Latin rhythms dance, and Monday, nine breakfast meetings and a gala dinner.
Discussion question: Does the number of students on federal free and reduced lunch in your feeder high schools let you estimate how many students on your campus might be hungry? If not, why not? Use evidence to support your argument.
Over to the national scene. Question: Did you visit your state’s congressional delegation to support President Obama’s proposal for free community college? Did you propose a better idea? Did you spend more than one hour trying to figure out how to fund the president’s plan at your institution? Did you ask your congressional representatives what they are willing to do for the nine million voters in community college classrooms?
No, no. That’s not me down at the podium. I’m not on the program. I’ve just hacked into the Gonzalez Center's audio-visual system, up here on the Jumbotron, to shout, to scream, to wail the questions every one of you in San Antonio knows must be on the agenda for community college leaders. What do I know? Every one of you is more qualified than I am to give this speech.
Question: Is educating the poor the greatest all-talk, little-action topic in our national public policy?
I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron at the Gonzalez Center to give the keynote address somebody other than me ought to be giving. I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron here at the Gonzalez Center because again the agenda for the AACC annual meeting, sponsored by our students, whose tuition, fees and textbook dollars sponsor the sponsors, ducks the crisis everyone knows our students are in.
Obama’s proposal? Where were we, community colleges? For the third time, President Obama has given community colleges the podium, the microphone and the spotlight. For the third time, where were we? It’s our job, not Obama’s, to find the funding and round up the votes.
Question: Does having Bob Reich, one of the most passionate, most eloquent voices on the dangers of poverty, of inequity, of inadequate education as your invited speaker, podium and Jumbotron, mean that everyone in San Antonio is doing enough for the nine million students? Well, I sent Professor Reich a copy of my speech. Ask Bob what he thinks.
Question: Why do we expect funding to land in our laps? Compare and contrast. For the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education victory stood on 20 years of targeted previous court victories. Community college leaders in 2015 won’t show up unless a funded plan arrives tied with ribbons and a bow?
I’m going to read to you the opening of “A Talk to Teachers” that James Baldwin gave in 1963 to New York City public school teachers. Listen. Please, please, listen.
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.
Everyone is this room is one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. So any citizen in this country who considers himself as responsible -- and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people -- must be prepared to go for broke. Or, to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.
“A very dangerous time”? Question: We have nine million community college students. Community college professionals agree that no more than 50 percent are likely to complete their degree or certificate. What life in the land of the free and the home of the brave is left to the other 50 percent, to those who don’t complete their degree or certificate? Poverty. That’s 4.5 million human beings in our community colleges today who we know are condemned to poverty.
Crisis? Question: Why does everyone seem to think this 4.5 million is OK, an unfortunate fact of life? Where’s the plan to remedy this?
Look at history books. Half the U.S. went to war to free the four million slaves. What will we do for these 4.5 million? Relative to the wealth, to the potential of everyone there in San Antonio, relative to the wealth and potential of this nation, by the standards of what’s possible in 2015, what does it mean about us that we will let these 4.5 million students slip into a life of poverty?
I’m looking for someone, anyone in the Gonzalez Center this morning who also can’t believe that condemning 4.5 million students to a life of poverty is an inevitable fact of life.
Question: Who said achieving equality and social justice is easy?
Let’s listen again to James Baldwin: “You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.”
Funding? Under our noses. What about the tax policies that subsidize Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Williams students, on financial aid or not, to the tune of $20,000 or more per student, depending on your assumptions? When the most from the federal government for our students is a $5,500 Pell Grant, only if the students and their families have filled out the forms correctly. Will the Pentagon or those colleges give up their funding for our students without a fight? Of course not. Again, we didn’t even try.
Crisis? Question: What exactly are the skill levels community colleges must deliver in reading, in writing, in math? How do those skills compare with those of freshmen and sophomores at Yale, at Harvard, at Princeton, at Williams? Impossible to say? We can’t set national standards! Make my day. We can start.
“A very dangerous time”? Raise your hand if you know that your intro biology course would transfer to Mount Holyoke, Smith or Amherst. Raise your hand if you know that MIT would give credit for your courses in calculus and in differential equations. Of course this doesn’t cover all nine million community college students. It’s a start. If we’re not matching skills with top students, how do we know about the rest?
Question: Could your students with, say, 40 or more college credits write an essay in 40 minutes analyzing the rhetorical strategies President Lincoln used in his second inaugural address to achieve his purpose? (I’m failing here. My students need a week at least and many drafts.) That’s a question on an AP exam in English and Expository Writing.
If you have a better proxy of the skills required for freshman writing at a top college, let me know. If you think community college students deserve only lesser skills in basic thinking and writing for any 21st-century job, if you think community colleges can educate worthy citizens who don’t know, understand, cherish Lincoln’s words, I’d say, “Step outside,” but I’m 1,767 miles away, in Boston.
Time to return your Jumbotron to AACC control. While you’re down there in San Antonio, remember our students who don’t have food waiting at receptions.
What do I know about the 1,800 there in the Gonzalez Center? I know you can do James Baldwin proud, and go for broke. Why are we waiting?
Question: Why not close with President Obama? “Yes, we can.”
Wick Sloane, an end user of a selective-college education, writes “The Devil’s Workshop” for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him @WickSloane.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, on Friday called for all college expenses to be tax deductible, The Los Angeles Times reported. He did so while criticizing President Obama's proposal to make community college free. "The president says, 'I want to give you free college.' It sounds good at first, but think about it? How could it be free?"
Paul added, "I have a better idea. Let’s let college students deduct the entire cost of their educations over their working careers. Let’s make college tuition entirely deductible." He did not provide details in the speech, given to students at the University of Iowa. There currently are federal tax deductions for some college expenses, but in many cases they would not cover the entire cost of college, as Paul suggested they should.
As the campaign for debt relief for its students mounts, for-profit Corinthian Colleges tries to pressure California's attorney general to ease her scrutiny as the chain seeks buyers for its campuses in the state.
The federal government has made significant investments over the last several decades toward reducing socioeconomic inequalities in college access and success: hundreds of billions of dollars in financial aid; a host of informational tools to provide students and families with better information about college quality and costs; prominent attention from the White House, including not one but two presidential summits in 2014 on expanding college opportunity for economically disadvantaged students.
Yet as we all know, gaps in college completion by family income have actually widened over time. How can this be?
Simply creating a financial aid system and college search tool kit isn’t enough. We have to make sure students and families know about these resources and can easily access them.
Think about Apple products for a minute. Why do we buy iPhones, iPads and MacBook Pros? First and foremost, they are durable, high-quality devices. We imagine some readers may be able to rattle off the technical specifications that make these devices superior to their competitors.
But there are four characteristics that really hooked us on Apple products: (1) They are easy and intuitive to use. It’s unlikely the iPhone would have gone viral if the average user needed to spend an hour reading through an instruction manual before getting started; (2) The devices have a sheer stylistic appeal -- sleek metallic casings, glossy touch screens; (3) Apple has been incredibly savvy in its marketing and advertisements -- Steve Jobs’s legendary launch events, crisp Apple television and print ads; (4) The social atmosphere of the Apple stores and skill of the Genius Bar technicians make getting help when problems arise an enjoyable experience.
Now think about the Pell Grant, or the College Navigator search tool, or federal loan entrance counseling. The maximum Pell Grant is worth over $5,000 a year, so one could argue that the product quality is in place. But the Pell Grant falls short on other dimensions that make Apple products so successful. The grant is not nearly as well marketed, so some students and families aren’t aware that it exists or that the money doesn’t need to be paid back.
And to access the money, students and families need to complete a cumbersome and confusing financial aid application. Imagine if, to get your iPhone, you had to first fill out a complicated rebate form, send it in and wait for a few months for the device to arrive.
College Navigator has literally hundreds of data points on every college and university in the country, but this is as much a problem as a benefit -- too much information overwhelms the average user. There are also design limitations -- the site is set up for people who know what to look for and how to interpret all the information they see.
There’s little guidance for students about how to structure a college search, or which data points to prioritize over others. And College Navigator has an even bigger name-recognition problem than the Pell Grant. Our guess is that a small fraction of first-generation college students in the country has even heard of the tool.
We can learn a great deal from companies like Apple. We’ve also learned a lot from the burgeoning science of decision making over the last several years. In the face of complex decisions and complicated choices -- like deciding where to apply to college or navigating the financial aid process -- people have a common set of responses.
One common behavior is to put off making any decision at all. Another common response is to use a simplifying strategy to make a decision, like choosing which college to attend based on where your friends have gone to school or a connection with a particularly charismatic tour guide. And in some cases, people don’t make any decision at all -- they just follow the path of least resistance. For middle-income students, this might mean enrolling in the nearby public university. For students whose parents did not go to college, it might be looking for a local job after high school graduation.
Research from fields like behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience has helped us recognize what private sector companies like Apple have known and exploited for decades: just having a good product or policy isn’t enough. For policies to achieve their desired aims, we need to do what Apple does -- develop high-quality products, and then devote just as much attention to publicity, consumer engagement and customer service as we do to policy development.
What does this mean in practice?
Nudging students about important tasks. Especially in this day and age, adolescents often balance a multitude of academic, social, work and family commitments. These responsibilities, on top of the fact that adolescents frequently struggle with organization and long-term planning, mean that even students with clear intentions to start or stay in college may miss important deadlines. Simple strategies like sending students text message reminders to renew their federal financial aid can help students translate their intentions into concrete actions.
Improving the design of publicity materials. There’s a reason Apple print ads rely on striking visuals and minimal content: people tend to glaze over dense text. Yet much student-facing communication is incredibly text heavy. By simplifying the content of letters, emails and websites and incorporating behavioral cues for students to take action, we can more effectively help students take advantage of the opportunities and resources that are available to them.
Simplifying enrollment processes. Researchers and advocates have devoted considerable attention over the last decade to how complexities in the federal financial aid application process can deter college-ready and financially eligible students from receiving aid. Reducing hassles associated with completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) -- either by simplifying the form itself or by making it easier for students to get assistance -- can lead to substantial increases in the share of students who receive aid and enroll in college.
The student loan origination process is another important decision-making bottleneck where highly complex information may inhibit students from making informed choices about how much to borrow. Simplifying information about borrowing and increasing access to loan counseling can help students make more informed choices about borrowing levels that are a good fit for their personal circumstances.
Changing default options. Several important stages in the college-going process -- taking college entrance exams, choosing courses once in college -- require active steps on the student’s part. Failure to take action can lead students to miss important opportunities, like getting into key prerequisite courses for their intended majors.
We can change the default option so that, for example, the curriculum is laid out for students unless they actively make different choices. Several states have shifted to mandatory college entrance exam testing to increase the number of students who take the S.A.T. or A.C.T. Several colleges have employed active course mapping that provides students with a scripted set of courses to take that will help them complete their intended majors in the least amount of time possible. Students can opt out of these course maps, but only by taking active steps to meet with an adviser to discuss alternative course options.
The greatest appeals of these approaches include their relative ease of implementation, low cost and scalability. A rapidly growing number of academic, public and private-sector ventures are applying behavioral insights to improve postsecondary access and success. Some of these initiatives have been rigorously evaluated through randomized controlled trials and have generated substantial improvements in students’ outcomes. We bring together insightful essays on many of these innovative approaches in our forthcoming volume, Decision Making for Student Success.
Behavioral solutions alone won’t eliminate socioeconomic inequalities in postsecondary access and success. But for a relatively small investment in these strategies, we can meaningfully improve the efficacy of existing programs and policies and expand college opportunity for hardworking but economically disadvantaged students.
Ben Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. Saul Schwartz is a professor in Carleton University's School of Public Policy and Administration. Sandy Baum is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
An article in The Washington Post explores how a student who is eligible for state and federal student aid can fall through the cracks. The student was ordered to move out of Towson University and go home because he hadn't turned in what he owed and a state agency had failed to provide the funds to which he was entitled. The story documents how no one at Towson or the state agency found a way to get the matter settled before he was sent home.
The U.S. Department of Education needs to do a better job of managing the federal grant program for teachers, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
The TEACH Grant program provides up to $4,000 a year for students who commit to teaching low-income school districts for at least four out of eight years after graduation.
Recipients who don’t follow through on that commitment have their grants converted into loans. About 36,000 of the TEACH Grant’s more than 112,000 recipients have fallen into that category, the G.A.O. found.
In some cases, though, those conversions were the result of the government's or its contractors’ error.
G.A.O. investigators found that between August 2013 and September 2014, 2,252 TEACH Grant recipients had their grants erroneously converted into loans by the company hired by the Education Department to manage the program.
The department said that it mostly agreed with the G.A.O.’s recommendations, which included establishing performance measures for the program and studying why so many TEACH Grant recipients fail to fulfill their service commitment.