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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