Federal Guidance on Grant Programs

With legislation pending that could diminish significance, Education Dept. proposes rules on competitiveness and SMART grants.
August 8, 2007

Three months after federal negotiations over possible regulations for the government's two newest student grant programs collapsed in disagreement, and with Congress contemplating legislation that would change federal law governing the programs, the U.S. Education Department on Tuesday proposed rules designed to carry out the Academic Competitiveness Grant and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant Programs.

The rules, which were published in the Federal Register, do not deal with many of the issues that have most vexed higher education officials about the programs, which were designed to encourage more students from low-income families to enter science, math and other high-demand fields. Far fewer students than hoped have taken advantage of the new grants, in part, college officials say, because the programs as designed on the fly by Congress excluded part-time students and non-citizens.

The federal negotiations that the Education Department set up to consider regulatory changes in the programs deadlocked over two major issues: the department's assertion that the law proscribed it from offering the grants to students enrolled in certificate programs, and disagreement over how the department defined what "academic year" students were in for purposes of qualifying for the grants. College officials complained that the department's definition of academic year was overly complex and restrictive.

The proposed regulations release by the department Tuesday do not address the issue of certificate-seeking students. But the rules attempt to give institutions "as much flexibility as [the department] can within [its] interpretation" on how to define a student's academic year, said Patricia Hurley, associate dean for financial aid at Glendale Community College, who was an alternate on the federal negotiating panel. Hurley noted that the department's proposal offers several alternatives for how colleges might calculate how many weeks of instructional time a student has accumulated, for example.

The Senate, however, has passed legislation to renew the Higher Education Act that would give institutions much more authority to define for themselves what an "academic year" is, which would render that part of the department's proposed rules largely moot. The Senate legislation would also open the program to certificate students and to students attending at least half time, among other changes.

If Higher Education Act legislation passes Congress this year, the department would have to issue an entirely new set of rules to carry out whatever changes in the grant programs that measure would make.

So these proposed rules, on which comments will be accepted through September 6, could have a short shelf life.


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