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

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Obama Ed Dept. Puts For-Profits on Notice, But Will Trump’s Follow Through?

With just days remaining in office, the Obama administration is still leaving its regulatory footprint, this time by releasing new data that show that nearly all of the career programs running afoul of federal student debt-to-earnings regulations are for-profit colleges. Scrutiny of the for-profit sector has been one of the signature drives of the Obama administration. How these institutions fare under President-elect Trump’s White House could be a key issue for the next four years.

EWA Radio

2017: Big Education Stories to Watch
EWA Radio: Episode 104

Kate Zernike, The New York Times’ national education reporter, discusses what’s ahead on the beat in 2017. How will President-elect Donald Trump translate his slim set of campaign promises on education into a larger and more detailed agenda? What do we know about the direction Trump’s nominee for U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, will seek to take federal policy if she’s confirmed? Zernike also offers story ideas and suggestions for local and regional education reporters to consider in the new year. 

Blog: Latino Ed Beat

What’s Next for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics?
A Q&A With Outgoing Executive Director Alejandra Ceja

Alejandra Ceja has been the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics since 2013 — a position she’ll give up at noon on Jan. 19, the day before the presidential inauguration. I recently sat down with her at the U.S. Department of Education to talk about the state of Latino education, the Initiative’s first 25 years, and what we can expect from the Initiative under the next administration. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length. 

EWA Radio

Who Is Betsy DeVos?
EWA Radio: Episode 102

Veteran education reporters from the Detroit Free Press and The Washington Post discuss Betsy DeVos, the billionaire school choice advocate nominated by President-elect Donald Trump. David Jesse of the Detroit newspaper sheds light on DeVos’ Michigan track record on legislative causes, and what is known about her tactics and negotiating style. Plus, he explains how DeVos’ strong religious beliefs have influenced her policy agenda. Emma Brown of The Washington Post details why Trump’s proposal for $20 billion in school vouchers might be a tough sell, even to a Republican-controlled Congress. And she sheds light on the potential for the next administration to dismantle President Obama’s education initiatives, including scaling back the reach of the Office for Civil Rights at the Education Department.

EWA Radio

Why A Trump Presidency Has Higher Ed on Edge
EWA Radio: Episode 98

Benjamin Wermund of Politico discusses the uncertainties ahead for the nation’s colleges and universities following the presidential election. While Donald Trump has offered few specifics on education policy, his surrogates suggest he will reverse course on many initiatives put in place under President Obama. That could have a significant impact on areas like Title IX enforcement, federal funding for research, and more. Higher education leaders are also facing a surge in reports of hate crimes and harassment on campuses that were already struggling with issues of free speech and diversity.

Seminar

Doing More With Higher Ed Data: From Policy to Newsrooms
Philadelphia • February 2–3, 2017

With colleges and universities under increased pressure to ensure that more students earn degrees without amassing mountains of debt, journalists are at the forefront in examining how these institutions  measure up. But there’s one major obstacle that both colleges and reporters share when it comes to making sense of how well these schools are meeting their goals: insufficient data.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

College Completion Failures Must Be Tackled in Tandem With Costs, Report Says

By Shenandoah University Office of Marketing and Communications (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Two numbers haunt the college landscape: $1.3 trillion and 40 percent.

The first is the ever-increasing debt Americans are shouldering to pay off the cost of a degree. But a growing chorus of experts believes that extraordinary sum obscures another crisis: For many, those debts wouldn’t be as devastating had they earned a degree. But only 40 percent of Americans complete a bachelor’s degree in four years.

The upshot is that millions of Americans earning meager wages are on the hook for thousands of dollars with almost nothing to show for it.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Understanding the Student Loan-Debt Picture

By Dwight Burdette, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“There’s a lot of talk about the student debt crisis and I’m going to tell you that I don’t think there really is a student debt crisis,” said Debbie Cochrane, vice president at The Institute for College Access and Success. “What there are are multiple student debt crises.”

Multimedia

Higher Ed in the Election
The U.S. Elections & Education: Part 1

Higher Ed in the Election

During the Democratic presidential primaries, the debate was over whether to make public colleges tuition-free or debt-free for students. Now that Democrat Hillary Clinton has picked up the tuition-free banner, how might her proposal affect higher education? Meanwhile, Republican nominee Donald Trump has suggested he might change the federal government’s role in lending to students altogether. Experts address what the candidates’ ideas could mean for colleges and students.

Report

Proposed Student Finance Regulations May Hamper Small Institutions
The Brookings Institution

In June, the U.S. Department of Education released a 530-page set of proposed regulations on the topic of ‘defense to repayment.’ Although this sounds like an obscure topic (and reading the document is no picnic!), these proposed rules, if adopted, could allow students to be able to have their student loan debt forgiven if colleges misrepresented themselves to students. The Department of Education is currently working through this process forformer Corinthian Colleges students, and tens of thousands more students could be eligible under the proposed rules.

Seminar

Election 2016: New President, New Education Agenda
Washington, D.C. • November 14, 2016

The election of Republican Donald Trump is sure to reshape federal policy for education in significant ways, from prekindergarten to college, especially coupled with the GOP’s retaining control of Congress.

Although Trump spent relatively little time on education in his campaign, he did highlight the issue from time to time, from his sharp criticism of the Common Core and high student debt loads to proposing a plan to significantly expand school choice. And Congress has a long to-do list, including reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Seminar

The U.S. Elections & Education: Part 1
Washington, D.C. • August 30, 2016

Now that the White House race has narrowed to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, how is education playing out as an issue in the campaign? Will it prove an important fault line between the Democratic and Republican candidates? Will Trump offer any details to contrast with Clinton’s extensive set of proposals from early childhood to higher education? What are the potential implications for schools and colleges depending on who wins the White House? Also, what other races this fall should be on the radar of journalists, whether elections for Congress, state legislatures, or governor?