Two new federal grant programs aimed at increasing the number of low-income students enrolling in college and especially in high-need math and science fields will be rendered "unworkable" unless the U.S. Education Department abandons several rules it has proposed for putting the programs in place, higher education associations argued forcefully in letters to the department this week.
In several cases, the groups assert, department officials have ignored the law that created the program and exceeded their authority in several ways, including by appearing to require institutions that are eligible to participate in the new programs to do so if they also want to continue to participate in the Pell Grant Program.
Thursday was the deadline that the department set for those who wished to comment on its regulations for carrying out  the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant (SMART Grant) Programs, which Congress created as part of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act in February. The Academic Competitiveness Grants provide up to $750 for first-year college students and $1,300 for second-year students from low-income families, while the SMART Grants for juniors and seniors in certain high-demand fields are worth up to $4,000 each.
Many college officials have had problems with the two programs ever since they first emerged on the scene  last winter. While many college officials have applauded the grants’ purpose of increasing federal funds to promote access to college, others have expressed unhappiness about some choices made by the programs’ Congressional crafters.
Among those choices are that the grants are available only to full-time college students who just graduated high school, excluding many older and part-time students, and that students must maintain a 3.0 grade point average in college to earn the grants as sophomores, juniors or seniors. The academic requirements mark a significant departure from past federal financial aid policy, by instituting a merit-based component into programs that have traditionally focused on financial need alone, a trend critics have bemoaned but supporters enthusiastically endorsed. 
Once the law creating the programs passed, efforts to change those aspects of the program were over. But the next stage of federal policy making -- in which the federal agency charged with carrying out the law, in this case the Education Department, drafts rules for how to do so -- has created another whole set of more practical objections.
There are perhaps even more so than usual, because the department, citing the fact that it has had to put the programs in place in an unusually short time period of just six months, crafted its regulations for the programs’ first two years without the formal process of “negotiated rule making,” in which it seeks advice and counsel from parties who would be affected (like college officials, in this case). Instead it collected advice informally and issued interim final rules in July, and requested that comments on them be delivered by yesterday, August 17.
In their responses, the groups go out of their way to praise department officials for responding to some of the concerns that registrars, financial aid officers and other college officials had raised about the grant programs. But “the regulations … make interpretive choices that exacerbate the problems of an already flawed statute,” the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the National Association for College Admission Counseling wrote in their joint letter.  “Several of these choices are so ill-advised that we believe the programs will simply not work if the department continues to insist on them.”
Some of the problems cited in the letters, including one from the American Council on Education  and signed by seven other groups, are practical and arcane to the layman, such as how the programs’ regulations define “academic year” for deciding when a grant recipient progresses through the program, for instance, and which grade point average it wants colleges to use in determining recipients’ eligibility for keeping their grants.
The ACE letter also says that requiring colleges and universities to base their awarding of Academic Competitiveness Grants on students’ four-year high school transcripts -- including the spring of their senior year, even though most institutions base their admissions decisions on six or seven semesters of high school work -- would impose a “breathtaking new administrative burden,” and “may not even be possible.”
Also signing the ACE letter were the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Community College Trustees, the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
The American Association of Community Colleges, in its own letter to the department  Thursday, said this requirement would pose a special challenge to two-year institutions, “because many of them do not collect high school transcripts,” wrote George Boggs, the association’s president. “Community colleges tend to provide an ‘open door’ admissions policy, and instead use front-end testing instruments to determine student readiness for particular programs.”
The community college group also reiterated its charge, made in a letter to the department last month,  that its proposed rules exceeded the dictates of the law that created the programs by restricting the two grants to degree seeking students, which would leave out potentially tens of thousands of students who would otherwise qualify but are pursuing certificates instead of degrees.
The letter from the admissions and registrar groups raise two other significant issues. It says that the department’s rules would restrict eligibility for the two grant programs to students who actually receive Pell Grants, not merely those who qualify for Pell funds because they come from families of modest means. This could disqualify students who have already used their Pell award, AACRAO and NACAC say, for whom “the receipt of an ACG or SMART Grant would be of critical importance. The very students, therefore, that would most benefit from these programs are arbitrarily denied an award.”
Lastly, it notes that the department's regulations for the new programs require "that institutions that offer one or more eligible programs for ACG or SMART Grant purposes and that participate in the Federal Pell Grant program must also participate in the ACG or SMART Grant program," and that the Pell Grant Program's requirements are being similarly changed.
"We strongly object to the department's attempt to bundle participation in unrelated programs and force institutions to make an all-or-nothing choice" about participating in federal programs. That decision rightly belongs to individual institutions, the groups say.
"It is unclear as to why the department would wish to use the threat of expulsion from a different and unrelated program to force such an institution to participate against its own best judgment," AACRAO and NACAC add. "The inclusion of this language may be construed by some as reflecting the department's concern that the ACG/SMART Grant regulations are likely to be so onerous as to cause institutions to forgo participation in the programs altogether.
"If this is, in fact, a concern, the best remedy would be to promulgate reasonable regulations, not to issue an edict that forces compliance with unreasonable ones."
A spokeswoman for the Education Department, Samara Yudof, said Thursday that department officials would respond to the comments of the higher ed groups and other college officials in the coming days and weeks. “We look forward to reviewing the comments when the comment period ends -- until that time it's not appropriate to discuss them,” she said.