Education Dept. Accused of Misreading Law

Community college group says U.S. officials would improperly exclude students seeking certificates from new grant program.
August 1, 2006

The U.S. Education Department has exceeded its legal authority in restricting access to new federal grants for low-income students to those enrolled in degree programs, the American Association of Community Colleges charged in a letter to Secretary Margaret Spellings Monday.

The department published interim final regulations last month to carry out two new federal grant programs: the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant Programs. The two new programs, which Congress established as part of the Deficit Reduction Act last winter.

While college officials found many things to dislike about the original, slapped-together legislation that created the two new programs -- including the fact that the grants are available only to full-time college students who just graduated high school (and therefore not to older and part-time students) -- lobbyists and financial-aid administrators have been focusing in recent weeks on the department's specific rules for actually putting the new programs in place, a process that is occurring at a much quicker (and therefore potentially sloppier) pace than is typical in federal policy making.

The department gave those wishing to comment on the new rules until August 17 to do so, and many higher education associations have been preparing their comments -- some of which are expected to be quite critical -- for that date. But officials of the community college association said they had decided not to wait until then to challenge the department's decision to exclude students pursuing a certificate from consideration for the Academic Competitiveness Grants because they feared that many students could be excluded in the meantime.

"We urge your expeditious intervention on this important matter," George R. Boggs, president and CEO of the association, said in his letter to Spellings Monday.

Nothing in the language of the Deficit Reduction Act warrants restricting access to the grants to students in "associate degree programs or their equivalent," as the department's interim rules suggest, Boggs said. "We do not believe that [the department] has the authority to limit ACG program eligibility in this fashion."

The interpretation could exclude many thousands of potential recipients from consideration for the federal money, he added, as community colleges "confer more than 250,000 certificates each year in fields such as biotechnology, aerospace manufacturing technology, electronics engineering [and] renewable energies."

"As a matter of policy and equity -- though this issue primarily concerns law and administrative procedure -- community college certificate students who meet the eligibility criteria for the ACG program need and deserve such support just as much as students enrolled" in degree programs," Boggs wrote.

Although the letter does not say so, the assertion that the department is not following the law in restricting the program to degree-seeking students suggests that the community college association could contemplate a lawsuit if department officials do not alter their stance.

An Education Department spokeswoman said department officials had just received the letter and were reviewing it.


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