Quick Thoughts on the Ryan Higher Education Budget Discussion Draft

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a proposal called Expanding Opportunity in America this morning, which covered topics including social benefits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, education, criminal justice, and regulatory reform. My focus is on the higher education section, starting on page 44.

First of all, I’m glad to see a discussion of targeting federal funds right at the start of the higher education section. Ryan notes concerns about subsidies going to students who don’t need them (such as education tax credits going to households making up to $180,000 per year) and the large socioeconomic gaps in college completion. This is important to note for both economic efficiency and targeting middle-income voters.

The policy points are below:

  • Simplify the FAFSA. Most policymakers like this idea at this point, but the question is how to do so. The document doesn’t specify how it should be simplified, or if it should go as far as the Alexander/Bennet proposal to knock the FAFSA back to two questions. Ryan supports getting information about aid available to students in eighth grade and using tax data from two years ago (“prior prior year”) to determine aid eligibility, both of which make great sense. I’ve written papers on both early aid commitment and prior prior year.
  • Reform and modernize the Pell program. Ryan is concerned about the fiscal health of the Pell program and is looking for ways to shore up its finances. He raises the idea of using the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG)—a Pell supplement distributed by campuses—to help fund Pell. I’ve written a paper about how SEOG and work-study allocations benefit very expensive private colleges over colleges that actually serve Pell recipients. It’s a great idea to consider, but parts of One Dupont just may object. Ryan also suggests allowing students to use their Pell funds however they want (effectively restoring the summer Pell Grant), something which much of the higher education community supports.
  • Cap federal loans to graduate students and parents. This will prove to be a controversial recommendation, with the possibility of interesting political bedfellows. While many are concerned about rising debt and the fiscal implications, there are different solutions. The Obama Administration has instead proposed capping forgiveness at $57,500, while letting students borrow more. I’m conflicted as to what the better path is. Is it better to shift students to the private loan market to get any additional funds, or should they get loans with lower interest rates through the federal government that may result in a fiscal train wreck if loan forgiveness isn’t capped? The Ryan proposal has the potential to help slow the growth in college costs, but potentially at the expense of some students’ goals.
  • Consider reforms to the TRIO programs. TRIO programs serve low-income, first-generation families, but Ryan notes that there isn’t a lot of evidence supporting these programs. I admittedly don’t know as much about TRIO as I should, but I like the call for additional research before judging their effectiveness.
  • Expand funding for federal Work-Study programs. The proposal increases work-study funds through allowing colleges to keep expiring Perkins Loans funds instead of returning them to the federal government. This is the wrong way to proceed because Perkins allocations (and current work-study allocations) are also correlated with the cost of attendance. I would rather see a redistribution of work-study funds based on Pell Grant receipt instead of by cost of attendance, as I’ve noted previously.
  • Build stronger partnerships with post-secondary institutions. Most of this is empty platitudes toward colleges, but the last sentence is critical: “Colleges should also have skin in the game, to further encourage their commitment to outcome-based learning.” There seems to be some support on both sides of the aisle for holding institutions accountable for their performance through methods such as partial responsibility for loan defaults, tying financial aid to outcomes, or college ratings, but an agreement looks less likely at this point.
  • Reform the accreditation process. Ryan supports Senator Lee (R-UT)’s proposal to allow accreditors to certify particular courses instead of degree programs. This is a good idea in general, but the political landscape gets much trickier due to the existence of MOOCs, for-profit colleges (and course providers), and the power of the current higher education lobby. I’ll be interested to see how this moves forward.

Overall, the tenets of the proposal seem reasonable and some parts are likely to get bipartisan support. The biggest questions remaining are whether the Senate will be okay with the House passing Higher Education Act reauthorization components piecemeal (as they are currently doing) and what funding levels will look like for particular programs. In any case, these ideas should generate useful discussions in policy and academic circles.

Should Colleges Be Able to Determine Costs of Living?

I was reading through the newest National Center for Education Statistics report with just-released federal data on the cost of college and found some interesting numbers. (The underlying data are available under the “preliminary release” tab of the IPEDS Data Center.) Table 2 of the report shows the change in inflation-adjusted costs for tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, and other expenses included in the cost of attendance figure between 2011-12 and 2013-14.

Tuition and fees rose between three and five percent above inflation in public and private nonprofit two-year and four-year colleges between 2011-12 and 2013-14 while slightly dipping at for-profit colleges (perhaps a response to declining enrollment in that sector). Room and board for students living on campus at four-year colleges also went up about three percent faster than inflation, which seems reasonable given the increasing quality of amenities. But the other results struck me as a little odd:

This tweet got picked up by The Chronicle of Higher Education, and led to a nice piece by Jonah Newman talking to me and a financial aid official about what could be explaining these results. In my view, there are three potential reasons why other costs included in the costs of attendance measure could be falling:

(1) Students could be under such financial stress that they’re doing everything possible to cut back on costs at least partially within their control. Given the rising cost of college, this could potentially explain part of the drop.

(2) Colleges could be trying to keep the total cost of attendance—and thus the net price of attendance, which is the cost of attendance less all grant aid received—low for accountability and public shaming purposes. In my work as methodologist for the Washington Monthly college rankings, a college’s net price factors into its score on the social mobility portion of the rankings and its position on our list of America’s Best Bang for the Buck” Colleges. A higher net price could also hurt colleges in the Obama Administration’s proposed college ratings, a draft of which is due to be released later this fall.

(3) Colleges could be trying to keep the cost of attendance low in order to limit student borrowing because students cannot borrow more than the total cost of attendance. Colleges may think that limiting student loan debt will result in lower default rates (a key accountability measure), and there is some evidence that the for-profit sector may be doing this even if it cuts off students’ access to funds needed to pay for living expenses:

Looking at each of the individual components beyond tuition, fees, and room and board, book and supplies costs staying level with inflation or slightly falling in the nonprofit sector could be reasonable. Pushes to make textbook costs more transparent could be having an impact, as could the ability of students to rent books or access online course material at a lower price than conventional material:

While room and board for students living on campus increased 3-4 percentage points faster than inflation over the last two years, the cost of living off campus (not with family) was estimated to stay constant. However, as Ben Miller at the New America Foundation pointed out to me, some colleges cut their off-campus living expenses to implausibly low values:

The “other expenses” category (such as transportation, travel costs, and some entertainment) dropped between one and five percentage points. These drops could be a function of colleges not accurately capturing what it costs to live modestly because surveying students is an expensive and time-consuming proposition for understaffed financial aid offices. But it could also be a result of pressure from administrators or trustees who want to keep the total cost (on paper) lower.

A potential solution would be to take the room and board estimates for off-campus students and the “other expenses” category out of the hands of colleges and instead use a regionally-adjusted measure of living expenses. The Department of Education could survey students at a selected number of representative colleges to get an idea of their expenses and whether they are what students need in order to be successful in college. They could use this survey to develop estimates that apply to all colleges. There is some precedent for doing this, as the cost of attendance estimates for Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant campus funding add a $9,975 living cost allowance and a $600 books and supplies allowance for all students. This should be adjusted for regional cost of living (and what costs actually are), but it’s something to consider going forward.

State Financial Aid Application Deadlines—A Lousy Rationing Tool

Financial aid reform has become a hot political topic in Washington as of late, with legislation introduced or pending from Senate Democrats, House Republicans, and the bipartisan pair of Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO). (Here is a nice summary of the pieces of legislation from the National College Access Network.) All three of the proposals support the use of “prior prior year” or PPY, which would advance the financial aid application timeline by up to one year. Given the bipartisan support, this policy change may end up happening.

PPY could affect the deadlines for state financial aid applications in ways that could help some students and hurt others. (It could also affect institutional deadlines, but that’s a topic for another post.) Some state aid deadlines listed on the FAFSA are currently well before tax day on April 15, making it difficult for students to take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool that automatically populates the FAFSA with income tax data but takes up to three weeks to process. For example, five states (Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Vermont) recommend filing “as soon as possible” after January 1 in order to get funds before they run out. At least 15 states currently have deadlines before March 2, nearly six months before the start of the following academic year.

The below table shows the percentage of all students who filed the FAFSA in the 2012-13 academic year (the most recent year with complete data available) by March 31 and June 30 by state and dependency status. There are two notes with the table. First, it only includes states with deadlines listed on the FAFSA, as other states are either unknown or on a first-come, first-served basis. Second, application data by state are only available by quarter at this point, although the good folks at Federal Student Aid have told me they hope to release data every month in the future.

Percent of FAFSAs Filed by State, Date, and Dependency Status
Applications Filed by 3/31 Applications Filed by 6/30
State Deadline Dependent Indep. Dependent Indep.
IL 1/1 65% 39% 83% 64%
KY 1/1 63% 40% 80% 64%
NC 1/1 54% 33% 79% 61%
TN 1/1 59% 36% 81% 63%
VT 1/1 70% 39% 87% 66%
CT 2/15 66% 35% 85% 63%
ID 3/1 61% 39% 80% 65%
MD 3/1 67% 41% 83% 64%
MI 3/1 61% 35% 80% 60%
MT 3/1 62% 40% 81% 64%
OK 3/1 47% 30% 74% 59%
OR 3/1 67% 50% 82% 71%
RI 3/1 75% 50% 87% 69%
WV 3/1 72% 40% 86% 63%
CA 3/2 68% 43% 81% 65%
IN 3/10 82% 53% 89% 69%
FL 3/15 43% 30% 72% 60%
KS 4/1 57% 33% 80% 61%
MO 4/2 56% 34% 81% 63%
DE 4/15 51% 28% 82% 60%
ND 4/15 45% 30% 78% 61%
ME 5/1 72% 45% 89% 70%
MA 5/1 65% 36% 87% 66%
PA 5/1 55% 34% 86% 65%
AZ 6/1 45% 29% 73% 59%
NJ 6/1 53% 29% 83% 62%
IA 6/6 58% 32% 83% 62%
AK 6/30 51% 32% 75% 58%
DC 6/30 60% 33% 84% 62%
LA 6/30 31% 25% 74% 58%
NY 6/30 51% 30% 79% 62%
SC 6/30 43% 28% 76% 59%
MS 9/15 37% 25% 69% 56%
MN 10/1 44% 24% 77% 57%
OH 10/1 58% 34% 81% 62%

Source: Federal Student Aid data.

Among the 17 states with stated deadlines before March 31, Indiana students were the most likely to file by March 31 (with a March 10 deadline) and Florida students were the least likely to file (with a March 15 deadline). The differences (82% vs. 43% for dependent students and 53% vs. 30% for independent students) reflect the universality of Indiana’s state financial aid program compared to the much more targeted Florida program. In all states, dependents were far more likely to file by March 31 than independents, meaning that independent students were much less likely to even be considered for state financial aid programs. Students were more likely to file by March 31 in states with earlier aid deadlines, as evidenced by a correlation coefficient of about -0.55 for both independent and dependent students.

By June 30, all but three states (Mississippi, Minnesota, and Ohio) have had their state aid deadlines, but only about 81% of dependent and 63% of independent students have filed their FAFSA by that point. Some of these students may choose to enroll in college for the spring semester only, but many are still planning to enroll in the fall semester. These students can still receive federal financial aid, but will miss out on state aid. The correlation between state aid deadlines and the percent of applications received by June 30 is lower, on the order of -0.4.

So what does this mean? About 20% of dependent and 35% of independent students are likely to miss all state application deadlines under current rules, and about 60% of independent students currently miss state aid deadlines before March 31. These students are likely to have more financial need than earlier applicants, but are left out—as shown by recent research. A shift to PPY is likely to move up these state deadlines as states are unlikely to provide more money to student financial aid. The deadlines serve as a de facto rationing tool.

There are better ways to allocate these funds. Instead of using a first-come, first-served model by setting an artificially early deadline, states could give smaller awards to more students or assign grants via lottery to all students who apply before the start of the fall semester (say, August 1). Susan Dynarski made an important point regarding the current system on Twitter:

States need to consider whether their current application deadlines are shutting out students with the greatest financial need, and whether a move to PPY at the federal level will affect their plans. It is abundantly clear that the current system can be improved upon, and I hope states act to do so.