One fact is clear: Latinos, on average, receive less federal aid for college than any other ethnic or racial group. But pinning down why that is -- especially when more Latinos than average apply for financial aid -- is like deciding which came first, the chicken or the egg.
That's what some of the analysts at a policy session on Tuesday likened the problem to. The briefing, a forum for House of Representatives legislative staff and experts, focused on the particular realities that face Latino students seeking to attend -- and pay for -- college.
While the participants agreed on what the problems were, the range of potential solutions, policy proposals and ideas for reform was broad. That was probably part of the plan. The Higher Education Finance Working Group, which organizers hope will continue to meet throughout the summer, was created in part to foster discussion outside of the limelight of high-profile hearings on legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, and to broaden participation beyond the lawmakers on the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness that is holding those hearings.
The result yesterday was a wide-ranging discussion that, while focusing primarily on Latino Americans, touched on issues that affect all low-income students who have or potentially will need financial aid in order to pay for college. Still present, but barely mentioned, was the looming renewal of the Higher Education Act and its possible implications for student loan programs, allowing for a discussion that wasn't necessarily pegged to the latest developments in the subcommittee's deliberations and that freed participants to look a bit further into the future, its sponsors said.
Thomas Culligan, a legislative assistant for Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.), said he hoped the group could be a place where participants "check your biases and vested interests at the door" and influence the reauthorization where possible, while providing a forum for learning more about the complex issues involved in financing higher education. Petri has been a notable exception among Republicans for his strong support for the federal Direct Loan Program, which has traditionally had more support among Congressional Democrats.
Whether the suggestions that come out of the working group's sessions make it into wider circulation is unclear. Its organizers include Culligan and Don Soifer, the executive vice president of the free-market-oriented Lexington Institute. After the November elections, Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.) gained control of the higher education subcommittee, increasing the likelihood that Congress would consider issues important to students of Hispanic descent -- a group that frequently comes from households with lower-than-average incomes headed by parents who often haven't attended college.
Which leads to the chicken and the egg. Are Latinos more likely to attend two-year community colleges and four-year public universities than average because they get less financial aid? Or do they get less financial aid because the tuition at such institutions is lower?
The answer would have a significant policy impact, and the panelists seemed to lean toward the latter -- that Latinos gravitate toward institutions that require less financial aid. One panelist, Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education (a think tank whose supporters include Wal-Mart and Sallie Mae and which counts Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University's Teachers College, as a member of its board), noted that in many cases, a culture of "financial conservatism" might come into play.
If Latinos had more "sophistication" -- a word she herself bristled at -- in dealing with financial issues, she implied, they'd tend toward enrolling in four-year colleges. Santiago predicted that doing so could save them money in the long run by making students more eligible for financial aid and with more institutional support.
Santiago herself, like 49 percent of Latinos, was a first-generation college student, so the process of applying for financial aid -- and all the headaches and horrors that go along with it -- is all too familiar, she said. "I had to fill out the form myself," she remembered. But that meant looking at her parents' income tax forms. "That wasn’t an easy discussion to have.... It really was a shift from being the child that the parents made the decisions for, all of a sudden I had to take the lead."
But being the responsible college applicant also often means having some measure of financial literacy, and that was one of the issues that the panelists, as well as those in the audience, seemed to agree on: Students need more of it.
"Financial literacy is critically important, especially when you’re talking about first-generation college students, especially when you're talking about low-income students," said Elwood G. Farber, president of the New Mexico Student Loan Guarantee Corporation, which oversees all of the state's loan programs.
But what's the use of a little financial literacy if the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms are so long? Some panelists suggested that many Latinos were applying for student aid but not finishing the forms -- and all agreed that they were too complicated.
One person in the audience had some experience with precisely that issue. Maurice P. McTigue, a distinguished visiting fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, offered some advice based on his experience as a member of New Zealand's parliament and as a cabinet minister who tackled the country's student loan system, among other issues. His recommendations were simple: Most of the information the government needed from loan applicants was already in Washington (in "some other form" than within a confusing FAFSA application), he said. "The qualification for a loan was evidence that you're a student. And that was it."
McTigue said all that was needed was a half-sheet with a student's name, address, birthday and college. The New Zealand plan, he said, allowed any student enrolled in the program to receive a loan from any bank, no strings attached. There would be no interest and no repayment until the student graduated and started earning income -- and then, the loan repayment would automatically be added to the student's tax rate. "If you never earned, you never had to pay the loan back," he said. "The investment was an investment in the future prosperity of the country."
Petri introduced a bill this month, the Income-Dependent Education Assistance (IDEA) Act (H.R. 2465), that is inspired in part by that plan. It would allow students to consolidate their loans and pay off the debt through their taxes.
Other ideas were introduced as well, without any particular consensus -- Support direct loans or federally subsidized loans? Does the booming loan market push tuition up or down? Is there a place for merit-based aid? -- but there was at least one more issue on which everyone agreed: transferring credits. With the Hispanic population having a particularly low transfer rate (as low as 11 percent, Santiago suggested), streamlining and unifying the transfer of credits from two-year to four-year institutions would allow students to graduate from one to the other with greater ease, they suggested. But that's a bigger story.
And with the session coming to a close, the analysts did what any respectable critic would do: They graded the financial aid process. No one ranked it higher than a C+, with Soifer giving it the dreaded "incomplete."