Federal Relations

By Cynthia A. Littlefield, Vice President for Federal Relations, AJCU

The Chairman’s Proposed Higher Education Issues

In March, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released three concept and proposal papers: Federal Postsecondary Data Transparency and Consumer Information; Risk-Sharing/Skin-in-the-Game; and Higher Education Accreditation. Higher education associations and interested parties should file responses to the Senate HELP Committee by April 24th. While the proposals only cover three broad areas, they do suggest direction for the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

The Risk-Sharing white paper expresses concern about student loan debt and the increasing rate of non-compliance by students who drop out of college, claiming that 70% of this population are responsible for non-repayment on their loans. Yet, one of the proposals calls for assessing a 1% fee from college/university operating budgets for failure by students to pay back their loan debts. In addition, this paper calls for the elimination of a 90/10 accounting provision for for-profits and the elimination of the gainful employment regulation. This higher education tax proposal is extremely problematic for colleges and universities; it will do very little to assist them with providing increased access for needy students to attend college because of the potential loss of funds that would have been directed toward institutional aid. The proposal simply does not work.

The Federal Postsecondary Data paper calls for more transparency and eliminating data that are unused and unnecessary: AJCU would concur with that proposal. The purpose of data collecting is for policymakers and consumers, yet very few consumers utilize the information. As privacy remains a critical issue with regard to accumulating student data, an exemption to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) may be in order, and would have to be seriously considered by many higher education entities. This white paper also states that the Department of Education should only deliver on data requests by Congress and not operate without statutory authority.

The Accreditation paper reaffirms the peer review process that colleges and universities have been using as an accountability mechanism for many years. With the emergence of different education platforms like MOOCs, online program offerings need to be assessed for quality assurance. The question then becomes, who should handle the federal student aid side of the equation, while also trying to ascertain quality of a course. These are but a few of the suggestions made by Senator Alexander and will draw serious discussion in the months ahead.

The higher education community, including AJCU, will respond separately to these three proposals. This begins the dialogue on adjusting the Higher Education Act to incorporate new trends and mechanisms that have emerged since the last Reauthorization in 2008. AJCU will be there every step of the way.

The FY16 Budget Tight Rope

The House and Senate Budget Committees have begun the process of conferencing the FY16 budget. At stake is a potential cut of $90 billion to Pell grant mandatory funding. If adopted and confirmed by authorizing committees, the Pell grant maximum award could decrease by more than $900 per student, which would place a tremendous hardship on institutions to make up for this substantial cut. In addition, 302(b) levels, which authorize appropriation levels, will be decided; it is widely expected that these levels will be below the FY10 levels.

The higher education community has organized a social media campaign through the Student Aid Alliance, using the hashtag, #SaveStudentAid. Representatives from Jesuit institutions, including students, are strongly urged to use Twitter and other social media to push hard against massive cuts to federal student aid.