HEA: Navigating the Key Issues & Making the Case for a Transformational College Education

By Julie Schumacher Cohen & Kathryn Yerkes, The University of Scranton

Efforts by Federal and state policy makers and regulators to encourage access, affordability, transparency and quality in higher education align with our Catholic and Jesuit mission, and matter greatly to our students. At the same time, Federal regulation has expanded in ways that, according to the bi-partisan Congressional Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education, “…undermine the ability of colleges and universities to serve students and accomplish their missions."

As we look to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) this Fall, it is important that Jesuit colleges and universities be prepared to determine where to share our concerns and when to lend our support in the legislative process.

Student Aid on the Chopping Block?

Student aid will be a major theme in the debates around HEA this fall. How will campus-based aid programs and Pell grants fare? Interest rates on student loans, in-school subsidies and the fate of programs such as income-based repayment plans should also be front and center.

Institutional grants and scholarships remain the largest source of need-based aid at our Jesuit institutions. Federal assistance, however, plays a significant role through Pell Grants as well as the three campus-based aid programs: Perkins Loans, Federal Work Study (FWS) and the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (SEOG). Together, these programs provided $138,738,823 in grants to students enrolled at AJCU schools in 2013-14.

Pell Grants rightly deserve to be our advocacy priority. Congressional measures this past year attempted to freeze Pell Grants at the current maximum award and eliminate billions in mandatory funding. As we know, Pell grants serve the students most in need on our campuses. At the University of Scranton in 2013-14, 815 students, representing 19% of our undergraduate student body, received Pell grants amounting to more than $3 million in funding.

To serve our students well, campus-based aid programs must also be preserved. At Scranton, we are particularly concerned about the potential loss of the Perkins Loan program, which is set to begin expiration on Sept. 30th. Scranton’s Director of Financial Aid, William Burke, explained, “These programs give financial aid offices the flexibility to help students fill the cost gap and allow them to step in with additional aid when crises arise.”

Simplification of Aid Program Regulations

“Simplification” is sure to be a buzz-word this fall, and we share common ground with many legislators who seek to streamline the labyrinth of student aid program regulations. Changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are sorely needed. Our Financial Aid office supports recommendations by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), including a process that would require low-income students to answer fewer questions than wealthier ones and the use of “prior-prior year” income data to determine aid eligibility. 

Accreditation: A Gatekeeper for Access

Another topic on the radar for Federal higher education legislators is regional accreditation, which serves as a “gatekeeper” for access to Federal financial aid under Title IV of HEA. 

Scranton is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). Regional accreditation processes are intense and particularly focused on ensuring that institutions are amply demonstrating successful student outcomes. Nevertheless, legislators have voiced concerns that accreditors are not doing enough to ensure institutional quality and have suggested possible changes to the regional accreditation system. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), chaired by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, floated a white paper this past spring that suggested the possibility of decoupling it from Federal financial aid. In short, the HEA reauthorization process may have significant implications for the accreditation process, in particular, its role and scope in higher education policy.

Best Practices for HEA Compliance and Advocacy

Now is a good time to consolidate internal campus organization on policy issues and to tap the know-how of national advocacy bodies. Scranton recently re-charged as a standing committee, a Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) Compliance Committee. First established following reauthorization in 2008, the committee will lead our implementation of any new regulations or requirements. The group will also monitor HEOA reporting needs and coordinate institutional strategy for state authorizations of distance education. 

The Committee is also joining forces with another campus group, the recently formed Government Issues and Policy Committee, comprised of a wide range of stakeholders and tasked with prioritizing key state and Federal policy issues for the University.  

Together, these two groups will monitor the HEA reauthorization process and will look to the AJCU Federal Relations Network, a “best practice” in its own right, to provide guidance on effective advocacy.

Keeping Our Eye on the Prize: Transformational College Value

As we write, Obama Administration officials have just released their long-awaited rating system, an updated “College Scorecard." A number of higher education leaders, interest groups, scholars and many in Congress have shared concerns about this system. In a positive shift, it does not include an actual scoring system or single rating; yet, its unveiling reinforces what many of us experience to be a new status quo of heightened regulation across the higher education landscape.

The University of Scranton’s President, Rev. Kevin P. Quinn S.J., wrote to the Obama Administration in February, noting the proposed system’s inability to capture fully what is “special about Scranton or about the many other colleges and universities that have helped young men and women open their minds, search their souls, and become thoughtful, caring and compassionate citizens.” In its own opposition, AJCU has noted that tracking alumni salaries after graduation, a key element of the new scorecard update, does not properly demonstrate the value of a college degree. Moreover, the American Council on Education, in a response to the Senate HELP committee’s white paper on accreditation, has stressed how difficult it is “to measure the intangible benefits of higher education (such as civic engagement, leadership, ethical behavior, commitment to lifelong learning, open-mindedness, religious values and practice, and community service).”

In the coming months, as the scorecard is fully analyzed and debates around higher education regulation intensify, we must continue to communicate individually and collectively the unique value of the transformational learning experience that Jesuit higher education bestows upon our students.

Note: This article was written prior to the release of the new rating system, an update to the “College Scorecard.” Consistent with what we noted above, the system does not include an actual score or rating and does put a focus on post-graduation salaries without the context of students’ varied professions. As AJCU wrote earlier this year: "Many of our alumni work for national and international social justice programs like the Peace Corps, Teach for America and Jesuit Volunteer Corps.” The impact of the new scorecard will be more fully analyzed and understood in the days and months ahead.

Julie Schumacher Cohen (above right) is the Director of Community and Government Relations at the University of Scranton. Kathryn Yerkes (above left) serves the University as Assistant Vice Provost for Planning & Institutional Effectiveness.