Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Four Thoughts About New Education Department College Reforms

Reporter Kelly FIeld, left, and Jamienne Studley, Deputy Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida in September 2015. (EWA/Emily Richmond)

The Obama administration is giving a late-game push to its higher education initiatives this fall, rolling out a flurry of new accountability measures aimed at helping students and families make more informed choices when it comes to choosing colleges.

Jamienne Studley, Deputy Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, spoke with reporter Kelly Field (The Chronicle of Higher Education) at EWA’s recent Higher Education Seminar in Orlando, Florida.  Studley touched on the new federal College Scorecard, changes to the federal student aid form, and the White House’s goal to make community college free to most students.

Here are four of the big takeaways:

The College Scorecard: “Better Questions, Better Answers.” Too many of the existing ratings systems for higher education institutions focus on measuring “wealth, reputation and rejection,” Studley said. The federal College Scorecard instead asks about “access, affordability and outcomes,” which Studley said are “crucially important” to helping consumers fairly evaluate their options. Quoting Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, Studley said students should know whether a college degree from a particular institution will help you “get on with your life” after graduation – i.e. develop the personal skills for a successful life, find a job, pay your bills, and ideally repay your student loans.

The College Scorecard also differs from other ratings systems because of its “user-centered design,” Studley said. Ideally the College Scorecard is a starting point, and visitors will then move on to the feds’ College Navigator and financial aid worksheets for additional information, she said.

Does Limited Data Limit The Scorecard’s Usefulness? Field noted that not everyone is thrilled with the College Scorecard’s debut, and that the president of Hampshire College called it a “blunt instrument that’s not telling the whole truth.” One example – the federal database tracks graduates’ earnings by institution, rather than breaking it down for specific programs. Completers and dropouts are “lumped together” and there are “well-established flaws with the grad rate,” Field said.

Those issues are part of the reason why the feds aren’t making formal rankings of various institutions, Studley said. The first goal was to get more information out to the public “but we were very aware of what we didn’t have,” Studley said. Some states have significantly more information to share about their postsecondary institutions than others. The hope is that over time, “that patchwork quilt” will fill in and give consumers more consistent data across state lines. That’s expected to be a more aggressive evolution now that schools could face potential federal consequences for failing to report more extensive information about its students and graduates, Studley said.

It’s Getting Easier to Apply For Federal Financial Aid. Students are now able to file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) paperwork in October, rather than waiting until January. And students will be allowed to use older tax returns than was previously allowed, which should also speed up the process. The primary benefits of the changes will go “to students who don’t pursue educational opportunities that might be available to them because they think they can’t afford them or they get the information that they need too late in the process,” Studley said. The financial aid community, including the counselors and advisors who work with individual students “are absolutely thrilled” by the changes, Studley said. “This … is an incredibly popular direction and I think the enthusiasm for it has been really widespread.” At the same time the FAFSA remains a lengthy and technical document. That’s something that can’t be fixed unilaterally by the Education Department. “There are about 30 questions that we would like to drop but we need Congress to agree to do it,” Studley said.

Free Community College Could Happen… But States Have to Act. In addition to the College Scorecard and the FAFSA revisions, the third major announcement from the Education Department this fall was the creation of a new coalition intended to help states and local entities offer free community college to qualified students. As Field noted during the Q&A at Valencia, that’s a step back from President Obama’s call for a federally funded program, which received tepid support in Congress, particularly among Republicans. Is this new initiative an acknowledgement that a federal move toward free community college won’t happen given the cost and opposition, Field asked Studley. The best way to maximize the available Pell Grant dollars is to use them as leverage, and encourage states and local entities to step up with matching resources, Studley said. “We would like to spend our federal money in a way that draws back in some of that state money,” Studley said. That will include maintenance of effort by states (continuing to spend at current levels) and new investments in higher education “but done in a way that carries with it expectations about performance models, performance funding, and other ways of assuring we get good results.”

You’ll find the full interview from EWA’s Higher Education seminar, plus additional videos from the sessions, here