Federal Policy & Reform

Overview

Federal Policy & Reform

The federal government provides billions of dollars in student aid and tax breaks to the nation’s colleges and universities each year, and it demands remarkably little in return.

The federal government provides billions of dollars in student aid and tax breaks to the nation’s colleges and universities each year, and it demands remarkably little in return.

In large part, that’s because the federal government has relatively few levers with which to hold colleges accountable. Unlike in K-12 education, where federal dollars flow through states to schools, most postsecondary aid goes directly to students, in the form of vouchers (Pell grants), loans, and tax benefits. To withhold money from an institution, the federal government effectively would have to punish its students as well.

The comparatively weak federal accountability levers in higher education are also a testament to the strength of the college lobby, which employed more lobbyists in 2014 than any other industry except electronics manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. With colleges in every congressional district, and millions of faculty and staff on voter rolls, college lobbyists have repeatedly beaten back efforts to link federal dollars to student outcomes and college costs.

Federal involvement in higher education goes back to the Morrill Act of 1862, which provided land to states to finance the creation of a system of agricultural colleges, known as “land grant” institutions. The federal role grew in the 1940’s and 1950’s, with passage of the GI Bill — which provided generous tuition benefits to veterans — and the National Defense Education Act, which created the first student-loan program.

But the real watershed was passage of the Higher Education Act, a 1965 law that laid the foundation for the modern student-aid system. The law, which created a system of grants and loans to help  students from low-income backgrounds pay for college, firmly established the federal role in ensuring equal access to higher education. In the years since, lawmakers have extended the bill’s benefits to middle- and upper-income students, providing unsubsidized loans and tax benefits to offset rising college costs.  

To qualify to award federal financial aid to students, institutions must show that they are financially “responsible” and administratively “capable,”  and have been approved by an accreditor and state regulators. Colleges can lose their eligibility if their state or accreditor revokes their approval, or if too many of their students default on their debt, but those conditions rarely happen. For-profit colleges can be kicked out of the programs if too much of their revenue comes from federal aid, but that, too, is uncommon.

Fifty years after the passage of the Higher Education Act, the government awards about $150 billion a year in grants, work-study, and loans to more than 15 million students. Policymakers and the public generally agree that the federal government should continue to make college accessible to all Americans.

Yet as college tuitions have risen, and student debt has skyrocketed, some lawmakers have questioned whether that federal aid may be fueling tuition growth — a theory known as the “Bennett Hypothesis,” which has been widely disputed in research. Others point to rising student loan defaults and lackluster graduation rates and ask why the government isn’t demanding more for the billions that it provides in student aid.

In fact, policymakers have tried to impose cost controls on colleges and condition small amounts of federal aid on student outcomes. But they have faced fierce opposition from colleges, who have branded such efforts “overreach” and accused lawmakers of intruding on academic affairs. In the end, most of the would-be reformers have had to settle for more “transparency” around college costs and student outcomes.

President Obama used both carrots and sticks to pressure colleges to lower their costs and graduate more students. He didn’t always succeed: His plan to reward high-performing colleges with additional Perkins loans went no where, and his controversial college “ratings” plan was reduced to a revamped “College Scorecard.” Still, Obama managed to tie aid to for-profit colleges to their graduates’ debt burdens, and to shine a spotlight on institutions with weak student earnings and low loan repayment rates.

At the same time, Obama sought to make applying for student aid easier and repaying student debt less difficult. He took steps to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and expanded income-based repayment for student loans. Congress might continue these efforts in the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is expected to focus on streamlining and simplifying the student aid and loan repayment systems. 

Lawmakers might also look to reform accreditation and increase college accountability, giving institutions more “skin in the game,” i.e., responsibility for their students’ abilities to pay back their student loans.

What the federal role in higher education will look like going forward will depend, in part, on who is elected president next November. On the campaign trail, Democrats are pledging to make college free — or at least debt-free — while Republicans are promising to bring down the cost of college through new technology and alternative credentialing.

Published: January 2016

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Seminar

74th EWA National Seminar
Virtual, May 2-5, 2021

EWA 74th National Seminar  graphic

The Education Writers Association’s 74th National Seminar will focus on the theme of “Now What? Reporting on Education Amid Uncertainty.” Four afternoons of conversations, training and presentations will give attendees deeper understanding of these crises, as well as tools, skills and context to help them better serve their communities — and advance their careers. 

To be held May 2-5, 2021, the seminar will feature education newsmakers, including leaders, policy makers, researchers, practitioners and journalists. And it will offer practical data and other skills training. 

Webinar

How Will Your Community Benefit From the New $81 Billion in Pandemic Relief for Education?
Experts explain ins and outs of new aid flowing to schools and universities, and how to track it

How Will Your Community Benefit From the New $81 Billion in Pandemic Relief for Education?

More than $81 billion in new stimulus aid is coming to schools and universities as part of the new federal COVID relief measure. Get a quick introduction to tracking the money that will flow to the schools you cover in this EWA webinar.

Two policy experts explain:

Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Radio: Your Top 10 of ‘20 Holiday Playlist
From COVID-19 coverage to the politics of textbooks, catch up with the top podcast episodes of the year

While most of us won’t be traveling far this holiday season, we still need those essential holiday playlists. Catch up with the most popular episodes this year of the EWA Radio podcast, which features journalists discussing the backstories to their best education reporting. (It’s also a good time to subscribe, so you don’t miss any new episodes in ‘21!)

Webinar

After Election Day, What’s Next for Education?

After Election Day, What’s Next for Education?

What will President-elect Joe Biden’s victory mean for education? How does the uncertainty in political control of the Senate complicate matters? What actions can the Biden administration accomplish through executive action?

Get early indications of likely actions on issues including emergency aid for schools and colleges, civil rights enforcement, Title IX, student loans, and more during this Education Writers Association Webinar.

Webinar

Biden Policy Director Talks Education, and Fields Questions

Biden Policy Director Talks Education, and Fields Questions

If elected president, what would Joe Biden do for education? Although campaign plans face plenty of obstacles when it’s time to govern, the former vice president has rolled out a sweeping education agenda, from the earliest years through college and beyond.

The Democratic nominee also has developed a “road map to reopening schools safely” amid the pandemic, and has been sharply critical of President Trump’s approach.

Seminar

73rd EWA National Seminar

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. 

This multi-day conference is designed to give participants the skills, understanding, and inspiration to improve their coverage of education at all levels. It also will deliver a lengthy list of story ideas. We will offer numerous sessions on important education issues, as well as on journalism skills.

EWA Radio

Higher Education in 2020
Looming Supreme Court decision on DACA, new rules for college admissions, lead Associated Press’ reporter’s list
(EWA Radio: Episode 226)

While it’s a new calendar year, plenty of familiar issues are carrying over from 2019 on the higher education beat, says reporter Collin Binkley of The Associated Press. Many of the biggest headline-grabbers this year are likely to center on admissions – the process of deciding who gets into what college. To settle a federal anti-trust case, colleges recently scrapped old rules that limited what they could do to compete for applicants. Now, a potential admissions marketing free-for-all will create new winners and losers. The Trump Administration’s policies against immigration, and tensions with countries such as Iran can’t help but impact foreign students interested in studying in the U.S. And the growing trend by colleges to drop application requirements for ACT and SAT test scores could also mean big changes to college access.

EWA Radio

Teachers Fight for Student Loan Debt Relief
NPR investigation finds thousands of borrowers wrongly denied federal forgiveness
(EWA Radio: Episode 217)

Two federal programs intended to steer college students toward public service jobs like teaching in high-poverty schools instead became mired in missteps, as recipients found their grants wrongly converted into high-interest loans. Cory Turner of NPR’s education team spent 18 months looking at problems with the TEACH Grant program.

Report

Free College 101
Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce

The push for free college is a recognition that the most well-traveled economic path to good jobs and the middle class requires at least some college for the vast majority of young Americans. It is also a response to the reality that many students and their families are taking on large amounts of debt to finance increasingly pricey postsecondary educations.

EWA Radio

If DACA Ends, What Happens to Students and Schools?
Final decision pending after U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on program for undocumented children
(EWA Radio: Episode 138)

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging President Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The program has temporarily protected some 800,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children from being deported. While a key focus is college-age students who fear deportation, ending DACA has significant repercussions for the K-12 school community as well. In this 2017 episode of EWA Radio, soon after Trump announced his plans to unwind DACA, Corey Mitchell of Education Week and Katie Mangan of The Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the potential implications.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Many Political Battles Over Higher Education Boil Down to Money
Partisans dispute how, how much, or even whether, taxpayers should support colleges

The political fault lines of higher education extend far beyond headline-grabbing student protests and furor over controversial speakers.

In fact, that sound and fury often distracts from a more practical political issue facing higher education today: How should Americans pay for college? Should students themselves bear the full costs of their education or should taxpayers help keep costs low? And if so, how should the burden be apportioned between state and federal taxes?

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Colleges Struggle to Adapt to Changing Demographics
More diverse student body poses challenges in admissions, teaching and counseling

Quick: Picture a “typical” college student. Are you envisioning a young person wearing a college sweatshirt, living in a dorm and attending school full time? 

Try again: Full-time students who live on campus account for less than 15 percent of all undergraduates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At a recent Education Writers Association seminar, three experts on student demographics suggested that investigations into changes to the makeup of the nation’s undergraduate student body can spark fresh and impactful stories. 

EWA Radio

No Forgiveness: Teachers Struggle With Unfair Student Loan Debt
Two federal programs under scrutiny, as thousands of borrowers caught in administrative missteps
(EWA Radio: Episode 217)

Two federal programs that were supposed to steer college students to public service jobs like teaching in high-poverty schools instead became mired in missteps, as the recipients unexpectedly found their grants wrongly converted into high-interest loans. Cory Turner of NPR’s education team spent 18 months looking at problems with the TEACH Grant program, and his findings helped spur the U.S. Department of Education to reverse course.

Webinar

How the ‘Public Charge’ Ruling Could Affect Students in Your Coverage Area

How the ‘Public Charge’ Ruling Could Affect Students in Your Coverage Area

The Trump administration’s new plan to make it harder for immigrants receiving public benefits to receive green cards could have sweeping implications for students and schools. 

The Education Writers Association presented this webinar to help reporters with story ideas and provide resources for covering the educational impact of the recently announced ”public charge” rule.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat: Busing
What reporters need to know about school desegregation efforts -- past and present

School segregation is a hot-button issue on the education beat. One strategy to address it, busing, has drawn widespread attention since a recent debate among Democratic presidential candidates.

In the latest installment of Word on the Beat, we explore what reporters need to know about campus reassignments to diversify schools — whether voluntary or mandatory – and how those efforts might impact students and communities.

EWA Radio

Summer Story Ideas on the Education Beat
Tips for tapping national issues to fuel localized reporting
(EWA Radio: Episode 209)

School might be out, but that doesn’t mean education issues take a vacation: Two experienced education journalists offer compelling story ideas to beat the summertime blues. Delece Smith-Barrow of The Hechinger Report and Lauren Camera of U.S. News & World Report join this week’s podcast to discuss a wide range of national topics ripe for localized summer coverage.