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

Webinar

What Does the GOP Tax Overhaul Mean for Education?

What Does the GOP Tax Overhaul Mean for Education?

With President Trump expected to sign GOP legislation approved this week to overhaul the tax code, analysts are scrambling to unpack the complicated GOP deal, including the stakes for education. The plan could make it much harder for some communities to pay for public schools, analysts say, while it offers a new tax break for private school tuition and other K-12 expenses. Meanwhile, last-minute dealmaking has led to key shifts in how the tax package will impact colleges and universities.

Seminar

71st EWA National Seminar
Los Angeles • May 16-18, 2018

EWA 71st National Seminar Los Angeles graphic

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This multiday conference provides participants with top-notch training delivered through dozens of interactive sessions on covering education from early childhood through graduate school. Featuring prominent speakers, engaging campus visits, and plentiful networking opportunities, this must-attend conference provides participants with deeper understanding of the latest developments in education, a lengthy list of story ideas, and a toolbox of sharpened journalistic skills.

EWA Radio

The Tax Bill: What Education Reporters Need to Know
Public schools and universities on edge over Republican plan for overhaul

The tax legislation congressional Republicans are rushing to complete has potentially big stakes for education. Critics suggest it will translate into a big financial hit for public schools and universities, as the rules for education-related deductions, revenue-raising bond measures and more are potentially tightened. Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week and Eric Kelderman of The Chronicle of Higher Education offer a primer on the House and Senate versions of the tax-code overhaul, including key differences lawmakers still must hammer out.

Webinar

Lies, Damn Lies and College Affordability Statistics

Lies, Damn Lies and College Affordability Statistics

Everybody says college is expensive. But exactly how costly are the colleges you cover? At 1 p.m. EST on Dec. 14, journalists participated in a free one-hour training webinar on two new and as-yet little-known data tools. They learned ways to quickly find the most reliable and relevant data on costs, prices and affordability.

Attendees had the opportunity to hear from – and pose questions to – two of the most knowledgeable college cost data experts in the country.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Nine of the Hottest Stories on the Higher Ed Beat This Year

Campus racial conflicts, sports corruption scandals, and a new partisan divide over the perceived benefits of college are among the biggest potential storylines for journalists covering higher education these days, according to Inside Higher Ed co-founder and editor Scott Jaschik.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Jose Antonio Vargas Calls for Context, Clarity When Reporting on Undocumented Immigrants

An elderly black woman with a crumpled piece of paper helped reframe the way Jose Antonio Vargas views the debate over immigration in America.

Vargas is a longtime journalist, an undocumented immigrant, and an advocate for immigrants. He was at a Tea Party event in North Carolina a couple of years ago when the woman, who recognized him from television, approached. She held a document she said her great, great, grandmother was handed after landing in South Carolina.

It was a bill of sale.

Seminar

Higher Ed 2017: Covering Campus Conflict in the Time of Trump
Atlanta • October 2–3, 2017

From heated debates over free speech to the Trump administration’s threats to deport undocumented students, these are tense times on college campuses. For reporters who cover higher education, questions abound and important stories need to be told. 

On Oct. 2-3, EWA will bring together journalists at Georgia State University in Atlanta to explore pressing issues in education after high school. (Here’s the preliminary agenda.) At this journalist-only seminar you will hear:

Agenda

Covering Campus Conflict in the Time of Trump: Agenda
Atlanta • October 2–3, 2017

Monday, October 2, 2017

9:45– 11:30 a.m.: (Optional) Journalists’ Tour of CNN

CNN has graciously agreed to give 20 EWA members a journalists-only tour of their newsroom, and a chance to talk with members of CNN’s newsgathering, digital and data analysis teams to learn about their state-of-the art techniques of building traffic. The tour will start at 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 2 at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, located at One CNN Center, Atlanta, GA 30303. Please be at the entryway at 9:45 a.m. so you can go through security.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

What’s the Price of High-Quality Child Care for All Kids?

Taryn Morrissey recalls that when she had her first child several years ago, “I knew how expensive it was going to be.” Morrissey is, after all, an associate professor at American University who studies child-care policy. Then she started shopping for child-care centers and got hit with sticker shock.

“It’s REALLY expensive,” she said with a laugh.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

How to Navigate Privacy Laws When Reporting

“How many people are here in some part because you’ve made a request for a record and gotten the FERPA answer?” asked Frank LoMonte, an expert in the federal privacy law, to a roomful of education reporters at a recent conference.

Nearly all in attendance raised their hands.

“That’s why my phone rings 2,000 times a year,” said LoMonte during the Education Writers Association’s 2017 National Seminar in Washington, D.C.

EWA Radio

When Students Attend White-Supremacy Rallies, How Should Colleges Respond?
EWA Radio: Episode 136

In the aftermath of the white supremacy gathering in Charlottesville, Va., some universities are under pressure to take action against students who attend rallies organized by hate groups. Nick Roll of Inside Higher Ed discusses the situation and how postsecondary institutions are responding. How do universities balance respect for free speech with concerns about cultivating an inclusive campus environment?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Reality Check on Secretary DeVos’ School Choice Agenda

The Trump administration has big ambitions to ramp up school choice — both public and private — but those desires have quickly bumped up against political reality. Will the president and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos deliver? It remains to be seen, though speakers on a recent EWA panel expressed some skepticism.

EWA Radio

‘Eddie Prize’ Winner Kelly Field: Reporting on Native American Students
EWA Radio: Episode 134

Journalist Kelly Field recently won a top honor at EWA’s National Seminar for her compelling series, “From the Reservation to College,” on the education of Native American students. Field’s coverage for The Chronicle of Higher Education — supported by an EWA Reporting Fellowship — follows several students from the Blackfeet Indian reservation in Montana. Their experiences highlight the significant educational challenges facing Native communities in the U.S.

EWA Radio

No Relief: Who’s Holding Student Loan Debt Companies Accountable?
EWA Radio: Episode 128

A new investigation by NerdWallet’s public-interest journalism team focuses on student loan debt-relief companies that promise consumers savvy fiscal help but too often do little to actually lighten their load — and, in some cases, actually increase borrowers’ financial burdens. Reporters Richard Read and Teddy Nykiel discuss who is — and isn’t — holding these companies accountable. What would need to change at the state and federal levels to improve consumer protections?

EWA Radio

Betsy DeVos Goes From Ideas to Action
EWA Radio: Episode 127

Alyson Klein of Education Week and Andrew Kreighbaum of Inside Higher Ed discuss recent developments on the federal policy front, and what’s been a busy month for  U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The Education Department has hit the “pause button” on regulations aimed at reining in for-profit colleges, announced plans to scale back civil rights investigations, and suggested federal scrutiny of state accountability plans for K-12 education could be more forceful than some people — particularly Republicans — were expecting.