The chorus of unhappiness that emanated from Washington's higher education associations when the Education Department released its rules for carrying out two new federal grant programs this summer was loud and strong. They objected to a wide range of perceived problems in how department officials planned to interpret the law Congress passed in February to create the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant Programs, on issues big and small.
The bottom line from the associations was that the programs, which are designed to draw more students from low-income families into college and particularly into high-demand fields like science, engineering and math, would be "unworkable" unless several key elements were changed.
Wednesday, the department published a Federal Register notice that offered its response, which was, by and large: too bad.
Of the 40 or so issues that the department said had been raised in 80 comments from college officials and others about the rules issued in July, department officials stuck to their guns on the vast majority of them, including most of the ones about which critics were most unhappy.
They included the department's approach to defining "academic year" for deciding when a grant recipient progresses through the program, its requirement that colleges and universities base their awarding of Academic Competitiveness Grants on students’ full four-year high school transcripts (including the spring of their senior year, even though most institutions base their admissions decisions on up to seven semesters of high school work) and -- of deep concern to community colleges -- the mandate that only students enrolled in degree programs, as opposed to certificate programs, can qualify for the grants.
The Federal Register notice explained that department officials would continue to exclude certificate students because they had "determined that because the [Higher Education Act] limits eligibility to a student enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a two- or four-year degree-granting institution, eligibility must be limited to two- or four-year degree programs."
"The department clearly feels entitled to flout the law on a case-by-case basis," David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said of the degree-program requirement. "The result here is that thousands of high-achieving community college students are being denied aid that they need and deserve. We cannot understand why ED would want to harm these students."
More generally, college officials said they were troubled by what Barmak Nassirian described as the department's "dismissiveness of what I would hope they received as constructive advice." Like many higher education lobbyists, Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, had given Education Department officials the benefit of the doubt when they published their initial rules in July, given the rushed schedule on which the regulations were drafted, which did not allow for the usual consultation (known as "negotiated rule making") with those affected by the rules. The comments that AACRAO and other groups sent in response to the regulations, while taking issue with some of the department's decisions, went out of their way to praise department officials for doing the best they could under a tight deadline.
But instead of taking advantage of the additional time and the counsel of college officials, department officials, by hewing to almost all of their original decisions, seem "really hell bent on taking all of the mistakes they made in haste and making them more deliberately," Nassirian said. "The department has absolutely compounded the inherent weaknesses of the law by almost purposefully making all the wrong choices when choices were available."
Of most concern to his members, Nassirian said, was the fact that with these regulations, the Education Department has transferred to curricular and academic matters the "micromanagerial approach" that it uses in financial aid policy. which it has largely steered clear of doing up to now. "These regulations are historically important, because they attempt to define such thorny issues as the declaration of an eligible major, to pick an obvious one."
The new rules, which apply to grants awarded in the 2007-8 academic year, take effect next July 1.
The department on Wednesday also published a separate set of final rules for carrying out changes in the student loan and other financial aid programs that were enacted as part of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act in February.