New America: Redesign college aid

A “more understandable effective and fair” student aid system doesn’t need to cost taxpayers more money, concludes a New America Foundation report, Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid. The study was funded by the Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project.

To eliminate any future “funding cliffs,” Pell Grant funding should be guaranteed, turning it into a true entitlement, the report recommends. In addition, the maximum grant should be increased and year-round funding restored to help students complete degrees more quickly. The “ability to benefit” provision would be restored, opening the door to students who lack a high school diploma or GED.

All this would cost more money, but the report also calls for limiting Pell eligibility to 125 percent of program length to encourage students to move along. In addition, eliminating “the outdated Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program that disproportionately benefits wealthy private institutions” would save money that could help fund Pell Grants.

The report proposes a Pell bonus for community colleges with a graduation and transfer rate of at least 50 percent. “Eligible schools could either use the additional money to reduce the net price they charge their neediest students or to create support programs to help low income students earn their degrees and transfer to four-year colleges.”

Other recommendations would redesign student loans and tax credits.

• Significantly simplifying the federal student loan system and reducing the dangers of default by requiring all borrowers to repay their debt based on a percentage of their earnings. Encouraging colleges to hold down their costs by eliminating both the Parent PLUS and Grad PLUS programs that currently allow for unlimited borrowing.

• Eliminating poorly targeted higher education tax benefits, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, in favor of direct aid for students.

The report also calls for strengthening accountability by “creating a federal student unit record system to provide a clearer picture of how students fare as they proceed through the educational system and into the workforce.”

Eligibility for federal student loans should be limited to 150 percent of program length to discourage prolonged enrollments, the report proposes.

Borrowers who turn to private student loans should be able to declare bankruptcy, if necessary, to clear their debts.

While the report is “wonderful and thought-provoking,” Community College Dean questions whether students can finish a two-year degree in 2 1/2 years. Very few do. Setting a tight time limit would make it hard to offer “stackable” certificates or integrate developmental instruction in mainstream courses, he adds.

Then there’s the political challenge. Capping student loans and eliminating tuition tax deductions to pay for Pell could alienate middle-class voters, he warns. “Once the middle class decides that a program is really just for the poor, that program tends to wither on the vine.”

Surviving austerity with honor

As times get tougher on campus, political infighting gets meaner, writes Rob Jenkins, who teaches at Georgia Perimeter College, in The Two-Year Track. He calls for academics to rediscover a sense of honor to cope with austerity.

 If ever any group of individuals should pull together, it would be college faculty in today’s unsettled (and unsettling) political landscape. Sadly, I’ve witnessed more dishonorable behavior in a single committee meeting than I’ve seen on a week’s worth of CNN news shows. When it comes to protecting their turf — their discipline, their textbook, their pet project — an alarming number of faculty members will lie, cheat, bear false witness, shout down, and intimidate their opponents. I’m not saying all faculty members are like that, or even most, but far too many fit that description.

If higher education is going to survive the current climate of budgetary “austerity” and cultural warfare, we’re going to have to rediscover, as a profession, the concept of honor. And when I talk about the profession, I mean from the top down: from presidents and chancellors to the lowliest classroom instructor. Because if we continue behaving the way we have, our narrow-mindedness and cut-throatedness, our in-fighting and self-aggrandizement — in short, our politicking — may ultimately do more damage to our cause than any external threat.

Commenter Insouciant suggests that tenure encourages petty politics.

Academics can get away with being petty, mean, nasty, and selfish because there usually is no great consequence of such behavior. They have tenure.

Replace tenure with a renewable 5-year review and contract based on performance, and we would see the civility and “honor” return to academia.

Of course, most college instructors  these days — especially at community colleges — are part-time adjuncts with zero job security and no say in how the college is run. There’s a huge gap in pay and prestige between the tenured minority and the untenured  majority.

Pell Grants for the middle class?

Are Pell Grants aid for the middle class? asks National Journal. Some say budget hawks spared Pell from massive cuts because — unlike welfare, Medicaid or food stamps — the middle class benefits too.

Yet most recipients report a family income under $30,000 a year; the median is $16,300.

Pell Grants are billed falsely as a middle-class benefit so politicians can buy votes, writes Cato‘s Neal McCluskey.

Voters get money they don’t have to repay, even if they graduate and greatly increase their earnings.  As students get more aid, colleges raise tuition.

Pell helps the poor, the rich pay their own way and the middle class goes into debt, writes Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

. . . by thinking of Pell Grants as a benefit for the middle class, members of Congress can pretend that there is a rational system in place for providing and financing higher education in this country. There isn’t.

College graduates from middle-class families “must start their careers with a crippling debt,” he writes.

 

Obama: Education is an economic issue

With the Community College Summit set for Tuesday, President Obama will highlight education as an economic issue this week, reports Politico. It’s also a political issue, said White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer. “The issue of education and reforming education so we can be more competitive in the long term is a fundamental difference between President Obama and Republicans,” said Pfeiffer Sunday in a conference call with reporters.

Obama will deliver remarks at the summit’s opening session. Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife and a longtime community college professor, will host.

The White House will highlight potential partnerships between the private sector and community colleges and how that could help the economy.

The White House will announce the first $500 million of a $2 billion four-year investment in community colleges.