Comments on the Bush Higher Education Proposal

The three Democratic candidates for president all released their plans for higher education fairly early in the campaign cycle, with Sen. Clinton, Gov. O’Malley, and Sen. Sanders’s plans all including some variation of tuition-free or debt-free public college. These plans are all likely dead on arrival in Congress due to their price tags ($350 billion for the Clinton plan) and the high probability that Republicans hold the House of Representatives through 2020, but the candidates deserve credit for making higher education a key part of their domestic policy platforms.

On the Republican side, higher education has been much less important during the campaign, with only Sen. Rubio having a framework (with a good number of components that may enjoy bipartisan support) in place for higher education before now. But Gov. Bush’s newly released proposal for education reform (as summarized in this piece written by Jason Delisle and Andrew Kelly, two informal advisors to the Bush campaign and people I greatly respect) reflects the most detailed proposal from any of the Republican candidates. (Gov. Bush’s summary on Medium is available here.) And like Rubio’s plan, there are components that will likely get bipartisan support in Congress—while other parts are likely to face opposition from within his own party. Below are the key planks of Bush’s higher education platform, along with my comments on whether they are likely to be effective and feasible.

Proposal 1: Replace the current financial aid system with education savings accounts and a line of credit. If one thing unites all presidential candidates, it’s that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid needs to be either incredibly simple or eliminated. The Bush proposal would replace the FAFSA for most students with an education savings account based on the tax code. All students would get a $50,000 line of credit (roughly the same as what independent students can borrow for a bachelor’s degree today), and low-income students would get an additional account with need-based aid based on their family’s income in high school. Adults would also qualify for grant aid, likely by filling out some new version of the FAFSA. Tax credits would also disappear in the Bush proposal, which will probably upset some people although they have not been proven to induce students to enroll in or graduate from college.

This proposal represents a modest—but likely helpful—improvement over the current system for undergraduate students. This would give students at least some additional flexibility in using their financial aid, with the potential for students to accelerate their progress by taking summer courses that would not be aid-eligible under current rules. Getting students information about their likely aid eligibility in eighth grade is a plus, as shown in my research. But I’d like to see students get money deposited in their account at a slightly earlier age to make the commitment seem more tangible.

It appears that the $50,000 line of credit will be the new lifetime limit for federal student loans. For undergraduate students, this makes a lot of sense. The typical student with debt has between $30,000 and $35,000 in debt for a bachelor’s degree, so $50,000 seems like a reasonable upper bound for most students. However, it doesn’t look like graduate students would qualify for additional credit—which could curtail enrollment in master’s degree programs or doctoral programs in less-lucrative fields. This could create an opportunity for the expanded use of income share agreements with the private sector.

Proposal 2: Impose “risk sharing” on federal student loan dollars by holding colleges responsible for a portion of loans that are not repaid. The general principal of risk sharing makes sense—if a college’s former students can’t pay the bills, then the college should be responsible for partially reimbursing taxpayers. And the idea has at least some bipartisan support, as evidenced by 2015 legislation introduced by Senators Hatch (R) and Shaheen (D). But putting together a risk sharing proposal that doesn’t punish colleges for serving at-risk students while protecting taxpayer funds is far more difficult than it would first appear. I’ve tangled with some of these issues in my prior work (see my proposed framework for a risk sharing system), and the Bush team will have to do the same if their candidate pulls off an improbable comeback.

Proposal 3: Allow new providers to receive federal financial aid dollars. Right now, students can take their federal financial aid dollars to any of the approximately 7,500 colleges and universities nationwide that are eligible for and participate in programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. Conservatives have frequently called for other non-college providers (such as boot camps, apprenticeship programs, and single-course providers) to be eligible for federal financial aid to promote competition and potentially place downward pressure on the price tag of traditional programs. However, making this sort of change would likely require a significant overhaul of the current accreditation system, which has been deemed a cartel by some Republicans.

Bush’s proposal echoes these calls, but also proposes that prior learning assessments qualify for federal financial aid. This would allow students to use Pell Grant or student loan dollars to pay for taking tests such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) that can result in college credit if a student can demonstrate subject mastery. It could also potentially be used to help pay for portfolio assessments of previous academic or work experience, which can cost hundreds of dollars at some colleges. Even if the entire accreditation system isn’t blown to smithereens, a relatively modest change of allowing vetted prior learning assessment providers to accept federal aid would benefit students.

Proposal 4: Get outcome data into the hands of students and families. Florida has one of the most comprehensive education data systems in the country, allowing students and their families to access detailed data on earnings by field of study. The Bush proposal calls for each state to develop a similar system in order to provide outcome data to the public. However, given the way the pendulum has swung regarding student privacy (a substantial part of both the GOP and Democratic primary bases), it will be difficult to include incentives or sanctions that would encourage states to develop these databases. But even if such a proposal were to be adopted, it’s far from clear whether 50 separate databases would make more sense from a logistical or privacy perspective than a federal College Scorecard with program-level data.

Proposal 5: Reform the student loan repayment system. Both Republicans and Democrats seem to be moving toward a consensus that income-based repayment models (where loan payments are tied to a former student’s income and debt burden) are superior to the traditional 10-year fixed payment plan. Bush’s plan would make income-based repayment the only option for new borrowers, with payments equal to 1% of income per each $10,000 borrowed for up to 25 years, with the maximum lifetime payment being $17,500 per $10,000 borrowed. His proposal would also encourage current borrowers to shift into income-based repayment, which is currently a headache for many students. Although people will likely disagree with the exact terms Bush’s proposal sets forth, the general principles match up with conservative proposals as well as President Obama’s REPAYE program.

Although Gov. Bush is badly lagging in the polls, his campaign’s higher education proposals are serious, generally well-considered (although lacking for most details), and represent an important starting point for federal higher education policy discussions. Given that large infusions of federal funds into higher education are unlikely regardless of who becomes the next President, some pieces in the Bush plan (such as increased flexibility in how students use Pell Grants) are worth considering as low-cost plans that have the potential to positively impact students. Other ideas (such as risk sharing) sound promising in principle, but have the potential to do harm if they are improperly implemented. But even if the Bush campaign doesn’t make it past the first few primary states, many of the ideas included in the plan should be strongly considered by other candidates.

Should States Offer Student Loan Refinancing Programs?

As outstanding student loan debt has roughly tripled in the past decade to reach $1.2 trillion, many people have pushed for measures that would reduce the repayment burden on former students. In the last few years, there were efforts to stop subsidized student loan interest rates from doubling (which were largely successful) and more generous income-based repayment programs on federal loans, as well as efforts for tuition-free and/or debt-free public college that have taken center stage in the Democratic presidential primary.

The latest effort to reduce debt burdens has been allowing students to refinance their student loan debt at a lower rate. Private companies such as SoFi and Earnest are expected to refinance between $10 billion and $20 billion in loans in the next few years, primarily of well-paid professionals who are extremely unlikely to default on their obligations. (By doing this, loans become private—so this isn’t a great idea for people who would qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.) But for people who have lots of debt and a steady job, refinancing can save tens of thousands of dollars.

Spurred by the #InTheRed hashtag on Twitter and support from some leading Democrats, the next move is to consider allowing all students to refinance their loans through the government. Any legislation in Congress to do so is unlikely to go anywhere with Republican control and concerns about increasing the deficit. As a result, efforts have moved to the state level, with at least seven states having adopted refinancing plans for some loans and others considering plans. But is this a good policy to explore?

While states are free to do whatever they want—particularly if they issued the loans instead of the federal government—I view state refinancing efforts as an inefficient way to help struggling borrowers. Sue Dynarski at the University of Michigan sums up my concerns nicely in 140 characters:

Essentially, further subsidizing interest rates rewards borrowers with larger debt burdens (particularly those with graduate degrees who rarely default on loans) at the expense of students with debt but no degree represents a transfer of resources from lower-income to higher-income families. For a group that draws most of its support from the Left, supporting regressive taxation like this is rather surprising. Additionally, to keep the price tag down, some states are heavily restricting who can refinance and acting more like private companies. Minnesota, for example, will only allow graduates to refinance—and only in that case if they have a good credit score or a co-signer. This could potentially help keep some talented graduates in state, but the magnitude of the benefit is often outweighed by differences in income taxes, property taxes, or job offers across states.

I would encourage states to take whatever money they plan to use on refinancing loans and directing it toward grant aid for students from lower-income families who have stopped out of college and wish to return. Scarce resources should be directed toward getting students through college at a reasonable price instead of trying to make graduates’ payments slightly lower later on.

To Reduce Debt, Give Students More Information to Make Wise College Choice Decisions

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

Higher education has gotten a lot of attention during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. All three major candidates for the Democratic nomination – former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – have proposed different plans to reduce or eliminate student loan debt at public colleges.

However, the price tags of these plans (at least $350 billion over 10 years for Clinton’s proposal) will make free college highly unlikely. Republicans, including leading presidential candidates, have already made their opposition quite clear.

But student loan debt is unlikely to go away anytime soon. What is important for now is that students and their families get better information about tuition costs and college outcomes so they can make more informed decisions, especially as the investments are so large.

What colleges will reveal

Although colleges are required to submit data on hundreds of items to the federal government each year, only a few measures that are currently available are important to most students and their families:

First, colleges must report graduation rates for first-time, full-time students. This does a good job reflecting the outcomes at selective colleges, where most students go full-time.

But full-time students make up only a small percentage of students at some colleges, and data on the graduation rates of part-time students will not be available until 2017.

The price tag of Hillary Clinton’s college plan is too steep.
Marc Nozell, CC BY

Colleges must also report net prices (the cost of attendance less all grant aid received) by different family income brackets. The cost of attendance (defined as tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other living expenses such as transportation and laundry) and the resulting net price are important measures of affordability.

Because financial aid packages can vary across colleges with similar sticker prices, net prices are important to give students an idea of what they might expect to pay.

Colleges that offer their students federal loans must report the percentage of students who defaulted on their loans within three years of leaving college. This measure reflects whether students are able to make enough money to repay their loans. Colleges must also report average student loan debt burdens, so students can see what their future payments might look like.

In addition, vocationally oriented programs must report debt and earnings metrics under new federal “gainful employment” regulations. This provides students in technical fields a clear idea of what they might expect to make.

The Obama administration has promised that additional information on student outcomes will be made available “later this summer”, although they have not said what will be made available.

What don’t we know?

Despite the availability of information on some key outcomes, more can still be done to help students make wise decisions about which college to attend.

Below are some example of outcomes that would be helpful for students and their families to know about.

Although enormous gaps in college completion rates exist by family income, students and their families cannot currently access data on the graduation rates of low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants. (The federal government is purchasing data from the National Student Clearinghouse to fix this going forward.)

Colleges are required to report the percentage of minority students and the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, but nothing is known about the percentage of first-generation students.

This is of particular interest given the key policy goal of improving access to American higher education; without this information, it is harder to tell which colleges are engines of social mobility.

Students need to have more information.
Lynda Kuit, CC BY-ND

Private-sector organizations such as PayScale and LinkedIn work to fill this gap, but they can only provide a limited amount of information.

How could we know more?

The data needed to answer many of the questions above are already held by the federal government, but in multiple databases that are not allowed to communicate with each other.

The greatest barrier to better information from the federal government is due to a provision included in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act which banned the federal government from creating a “student unit record” data system that would link financial aid, enrollment and employment outcomes for students receiving federal financial aid dollars. This ban was put in place in part due to concerns over data privacy, and in part due to an intense lobbying effort from private nonprofit colleges.

States, in contrast, are allowed to have unit record data systems, and a few of them make detailed information available to anyone at the click of a mouse.

For example, Virginia makes a host of student loan debt information available in a series of convenient tables and graphics.

Senator Rubio has teamed with Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Warner of Virginia to introduce legislation overturning the ban on unit record data, although no action has yet been taken in Congress.

A bipartisan push to make more information available to students and their families has the potential to help students make better decisions.

But getting data is only one part of the challenge. The other is getting that into the hands of students at the right time. For that, it is important for the federal government to work with college access organizations and guidance counselors.

Students should be able to access this information as they begin considering attending college. Although additional information may not allow a student to graduate debt-free, it will help him or her to make a more informed decision about where to attend college and if the price tag is worth paying.

The Conversation

Read the original article.

Comments on Senator Clinton’s Higher Education Proposal

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign released her framework for higher education reform at midnight on Monday morning (see details here and here). The plan, officially listed at a cost of $350 billion over ten years, would move closer to the idea of debt-free public college, require states to increase their spending on public higher education, and potentially embrace some accountability reforms with bipartisan appeal. Below are some of my first-take comments on Sen. Clinton’s proposal, as I look forward to seeing complete details. (I didn’t get an embargoed copy in advance.)

  • This proposal feels like a direct reaction to pressure that Sen. Clinton was facing from the political Left. Both of her main rivals, independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, have supported versions of debt-free public college plans. This has zero chance of passing Congress as is, particularly as the House of Representatives is likely to stay in Republican hands through 2020 and the proposal would be paid for by additional taxes on wealthy Americans.
  • I’m highly skeptical of the $350 billion price tag, or at least when it’s phrased as just being $35 billion per year (roughly equal to federal Pell Grant spending). New federal programs take several years to phase in, meaning that most of the expenses are in later years. (President Obama’s free community college proposal is similar.) Once this plan is fully in place, I’d expect the price tag to be closer to $70 billion per year. All politicians like to massage the ten-year budget window used for cost estimates, and Sen. Clinton is no different.
  • Unlike some other “free college” proposals, Sen. Clinton’s proposal brings at least some private nonprofit colleges to the table by potentially making some of their students eligible for additional aid. This is a politically smart move, as the private nonprofit lobby is strong and many colleges in this sector do good work for students. But as noted in Inside Higher Ed this morning, the leadership of the private college lobby is concerned about any proposals that direct relatively less money to private colleges—as it could affect some institutions’ ability to survive.
  • This plan includes a federal/state partnership, which is typical for Democratic higher education proposals (and a good way to keep the price tag down somewhat). However, as suggested by Medicaid, many Republican governors may not take up the extra funds in exchange for having to assume additional responsibilities. For that reason, Sen. Clinton’s proposal to allow public colleges in those states to bypass the state governments to work directly with the federal government is politically brilliant. But states probably won’t be happy.
  • Much of the price tag will go to reduce interest rates on student loans, both for current students and to allow former students to refinance their loans. This is a big deal for the Elizabeth Warren faction of the Democratic Party—the folks who really make their voices heard in primary elections. But this money will do little to improve access and completion rates, in part because much of the money goes to students after they have left college and because income-based repayment plans make interest rates less relevant. Additionally, students who tried to avoid debt as much as possible (many from lower-income families) won’t benefit as much and may be upset by the subsidies going to higher-income borrowers. I wrote about this in my previous post.
  • There are bipartisan pieces in this plan, including accreditation reform, better consumer information, and risk-sharing for student loans. If Sen. Clinton becomes the nominee, look for her to pivot to the center and highlight some of these proposals.
  • The Clinton staff are claiming this proposal will help bring down the cost of providing a college education, in addition to the price that students pay. I just can’t help but be skeptical when suggested cost-saving areas include administration and technology. Colleges have been facing pressure to tighten their belts for years from states (and many have actually done so), so I don’t think the federal government will be any more successful. But it makes for a good soundbite.

The three main Democratic candidates have now laid out their higher education agendas. Hopefully, the Republican field (which, with the exception of Sen. Marco Rubio, have been fairly quiet on the issue) will follow suit.

Why “Debt-Free” College Will Upset Some Students

In a major higher education policy proposal, former Senator and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton recently announced plans for higher education reforms that come close to debt-free college by increasing grant aid to students and reducing interest rates on current loans. She is following in the footsteps of the other two main candidates for the Democratic nomination—Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley—both of whom have called for some sort of debt-free higher education option.

Putting aside the substantial cost to federal taxpayers ($350 billion over 10 years) and state governments (unknown at this point) for a while, any plan for student loan reforms or debt-free college should make those who know the burden of student loan debt happy. Right? Perhaps not so much. A somewhat similar example comes out of Seattle, where credit card processor Gravity Payments announced earlier this year that its employees would be paid a minimum of $70,000 per year. Again, this is an idea that sounds great—essentially double the wages received by lower-level employees and get an outpouring of good publicity. However, although Gravity signed up a number of new customers, the company has faced some unexpected opposition.

As detailed in a recent New York Times article, Gravity lost a number of existing customers over fears that increasing wages would result in higher future charges, even though the CEO cut his salary to partially pay for the wage increases. That doesn’t really have a corollary to higher education, but the other key point in the article does. Gravity lost two employees making over $70,000 per year as a result of the wage increase for everyone else, as they did not feel valued in a company that paid lower-skilled workers similar amounts to what they earned.

This raises an important point—whenever a program such as a dramatically higher wage floor, student loan reforms that reduce borrowing costs, or debt free college is introduced, at least some similar people who do not qualify for the new program are likely to be upset. Consider the case of a student who just finished repaying $15,000 in student loans by making additional payments in order to become debt-free as soon as possible. She may have sacrificed by working additional hours while in college, attending a less-selective college, and forgoing buying a newer, more reliable car. If the terms on student loan debt change in a way that essentially reward a student who borrowed $35,000 in order to not work in college and enjoy a slightly higher standard of living, it’s reasonable to expect the student with less debt to be upset. (Let’s also not forget the group of lower-income students who are debt-averse and will do anything not to borrow for college. They wouldn’t benefit from any student loan reforms.)

A move to debt-free college works in a similar way, as students who go to college after such a program is instituted get to benefit, while students who attended a few years earlier get nothing. This is happening to some extent in states like Tennessee, where all students can go to a community college tuition-free, and there is no constitutional amendment saying that life must be fair for all. But when plans for debt-free college and reducing student loan burdens get introduced, let’s not forget that some people will get upset because they perceive themselves as getting the short end of the stick. And when presidential campaigns try to build up support, they should do everything they can to make this group happy.

Analyzing the Heightened Cash Monitoring Data Release

NOTE: This post was updated April 3 to reflect the Department of Education’s latest release of data on heightened cash monitoring.

In my previous post, I wrote about the U.S. Department of Education’s release of a list of 544 colleges subject to heightened cash monitoring standards due to various academic, financial, and administrative concerns. I constructed a dataset of the 512 U.S. colleges known to be facing heightened cash monitoring (HCM) along with two other key accountability measures: the percentage of students who default on loans within three years (cohort default rates) and an additional measure of private colleges’ financial strength (financial responsibility scores). In this post, I examine the reasons why colleges face heightened cash monitoring, as well as whether HCM correlates with the other accountability metrics.

The table below shows the number of colleges facing HCM-1 (shorter delays in ED’s disbursement of student financial aid dollars, although colleges not facing HCM have no delays) and HCM-2 (longer delays) by type of institution (public, private nonprofit, and for-profit).

Table 1: HCM status by institutional type.
Sector HCM-1 HCM-2
Public 68 6
Private nonprofit 97 18
Private for-profit 284 39
Total 449 63

 

While only six of 74 public colleges are facing HCM-2, more than one in ten private nonprofit (18 of 115) and for-profit colleges (39 of 323) are facing this higher standard of oversight. The next table shows the various reasons listed for why colleges are facing HCM.

Table 2: HCM status by reason for additional oversight.
Reason HCM-1 HCM-2
Low financial responsibility score 320 4
Financial statements late 66 9
Program review 1 21
Administrative capability 22 7
Accreditation concerns 1 12
Other 39 10

 

More than two-thirds (320) of the 449 colleges facing HCM-1 are included due to low financial responsibility scores (below a 1.5 on a scale ranging from -1 to 3), but only four colleges are facing HCM-2 for that reason. The next most common reason, affecting 75 colleges, is a delayed submission of required financial statements or audits. This affected 43 public colleges in Minnesota, which are a majority of the public colleges subject to HCM. Program review concerns were a main factor for HCM-2, with 21 colleges in this category (including many newly released institutions) facing HCM-2. Other serious concerns included administrative capability (22 in HCM-1 and 7 in HCM-2), accreditation (2 in HCM-1 and 12 in HCM-2), and a range of other factors (39 in HCM-1 and 10 in HCM-2).

The next table includes three of the most common or serious reasons for facing HCM (low financial responsibility scores, administrative capacity concerns, and accreditation issues) and examines their median financial responsibility scores and cohort default rates.

Table 3: Median outcome values on other accountability metrics.
Reason for inclusion in HCM Financial responsibility score Cohort default rate
Low financial responsibility score 1.2 12.1%
Administrative capability 1.6 20.3%
Accreditation issues 2.0 2.8%

 

Not surprisingly, the typical college subject to HCM for a low financial responsibility score had a financial responsibility score of 1.2 in Fiscal Year 2012, which would require additional federal oversight. Although the median cohort default rate was 12.1%, which is slightly lower than the national default rate of 13.7%, some of these colleges do not participate in the federal student loan program and are thus counted as zeroes. The median college with administrative capability concerns barely passed the financial responsibility test (with a score of 1.6), while 20.3% of students defaulted. Colleges with accreditation issues (either academic or financial) had higher financial responsibility scores (2.0) and lower cohort default rates (2.8%).

What does this release of heightened cash monitoring data tell us? Since most colleges are on the list for known concerns (low financial responsibility scores or accreditation issues) or rather silly errors (forgetting to submit financial statements on time), the value is fairly limited. But there is still some value, particularly in the administrative capability category. These colleges deserve additional scrutiny, and the release of this list will do just that.

New Data on Heightened Cash Monitoring and Accountability Policies

Earlier this week, I wrote about the U.S. Department of Education’s pending release of a list of colleges that are currently subject to heightened cash monitoring requirements. On Tuesday morning, ED released the list of 556 colleges (updated to 544 on Friday), thanks to dogged reporting by Michael Stratford at Inside Higher Ed (see his take on the release here).

My interest lies in comparing the colleges facing heightened cash monitoring (HCM) to two other key accountability measures: the percentage of students who default on loans within three years (cohort default rates) and an additional measure of private colleges’ financial strength (financial responsibility scores). I have compiled a dataset with all of the domestic colleges known to be facing HCM, their cohort default rates, and their financial responsibility scores.

That dataset is available for download on my site, and I hope it is useful for those interested in examining these new data on federal accountability policies. I will have a follow-up post with a detailed analysis, but at this point it is more important for me to get the data out in a convenient form to researchers, policymakers, and the public.

DOWNLOAD the dataset here.

Why is it So Difficult to Sanction Colleges for Poor Performance?

The U.S. Department of Education has the ability to sanction colleges for poor performance in several ways. A few weeks ago, I wrote about ED’s most recent release of financial responsibility scores, which require colleges deemed financially unstable to post a bond with the federal government before receiving financial aid dollars. ED can also strip a college’s federal financial aid eligibility if too high of a percentage of students default on their federal loans, if data are not provided on key measures such as graduation rates, or if laws such as Title IX (prohibiting discrimination based on sex) are not followed.

The Department of Education can also sanction colleges by placing them on Heightened Cash Monitoring (HCM), requiring additional documentation and a hold on funds before student financial aid dollars are released. Corinthian Colleges, which partially collapsed last summer, blames suddenly imposed HCM requirements for its collapse as they were left short on cash. Notably, ED has the authority to determine which colleges should face HCM without relying upon a fixed and transparent formula.

In spite of the power of the HCM designation, ED has previously refused to release a list of which colleges are subject to HCM. The outstanding Michael Stratford at Inside Higher Ed tried to get the list for nearly a year through a Freedom of Information Act request (which was mainly denied due to concerns about hurting colleges’ market positions), finally making this dispute public in an article last week. This sunlight proved to be a powerful disinfectant, as ED relinquished late Friday and will publish a list of the names this week.

The concerns about releasing HCM scores is but one of many difficulties the Department of Education has had in sanctioning colleges for poor performance across different dimensions. Last fall, the cohort default rate measures were tweaked at the last minute, which had the effect of allowing more colleges to pass and retain access to federal aid. Financial responsibility scores have been challenged over concerns that ED’s calculations are incorrect. Gainful employment metrics are still tied up in court, and tying any federal aid dollars to college ratings appears to have no chance of passing Congress at this point. Notably, these sanctions are rarely due to direct concerns about academics, as academic matters are left to accreditors.

Why is it so difficult to sanction poorly-performing colleges, and why is the Department of Education so hesitant to release performance data? I suggest three reasons below, and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

(1) The first reason is the classic political science axiom of concentrated benefits (to colleges) and diffuse costs (to students and the general public). Since there is a college in every Congressional district (Andrew Kelly at AEI shows the median district had 11 colleges in 2011-12), colleges and their professional associations can put forth a fight whenever they feel threatened.

(2) Some of these accountability measures are either all-or-nothing in nature (such as default rates) or incredibly costly for financially struggling colleges (HCM or posting a letter of credit for a low financial responsibility score). More nuanced systems with a sliding scale might make some sanctions possible, and this is a possible reform under Higher Education Act reauthorization.

(3) The complex relationship between accrediting bodies and the Department of Education leaves ED unable to directly sanction colleges for poor academic performance. A 2014 GAO report suggested accrediting bodies also focus more on finances than academics and called for a greater federal role in accreditation, something that will not sit well with colleges.

I look forward to seeing the list of colleges facing Heightened Cash Monitoring be released later this week (please, not Friday afternoon!) and will share my thoughts on the list in a future piece.

The FY 2016 Obama Budget: A Few Surprises

The Obama Administration released their $3.999 trillion budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016, and the higher education portion of the budget was largely as expected. Some proposals, such as increasing research funding, providing a bonus pool of funds for colleges with high graduation rates, and reallocating the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant to be based on current financial need instead of an antiquated formula, were repeats from previous years. Others, such as the idea of tuition-free community college, had already been sketched out. And one controversial proposal—the plan to tax new 529 college savings plans—had already been nixed, but remained in the budget document due to a “printing deadline.”

But the budget proposal (the vast majority of which is dead on arrival in a GOP Congress thanks to differences in viewpoints and preferred budget levels) did have some surprising details. The three most interesting higher education-related details are below.

(1) “Universal” free community college isn’t exactly universal. Pages 59 and 60 of the education budget proposal noted that students with a family Adjusted Gross Income of over $200,000 would be ineligible for tuition-free community college. Although this detail was apparently decided before the program was announced, the Obama Administration for some reason chose to hide that detail from the public until Monday. As the picture shows below, only 2.7% of dependent community college students had family incomes above $200,000 in 2011-12 (data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study).

income

But in order to get family income, students have to file the FAFSA. Research by Lyle McKinney and Heather Novak suggests that 42% of low-income community college students didn’t file the FAFSA in 2007-08, meaning that something big needs to be done to get these students to file. Requiring the FAFSA also means that noncitizens typically would not qualify for free community college, something that is likely to upset advocates for “dreamer” students (but make many on the Right happy).

Additionally, as Susan Dynarski at the University of Michigan pointed out, the GPA requirements (a 2.5 instead of a 2.0) make a big difference. In 2011-12, 15.9% of Pell recipients had GPAs between a 2.0 and 2.49, meaning they would not qualify for free community college.

gpa

 

(2) Asset questions may be off the FAFSA. The budget document called for the following changes to the FAFSA, including the elimination of assets (thanks to Ben Miller at New America for the screenshot):

fafsa

 

Getting rid of assets won’t affect most families, as research by Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton shows. But it does matter more to selective colleges, more of which might turn to additional financial aid forms like the CSS/PROFILE to get the information they want. Policymakers should take the benefits of FAFSA simplicity as well as the potential costs to students of additional forms into account.

(3) Mum’s the word on college ratings. After last year’s budget featured $10 million for the development of the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), this year’s budget had no mention. Inside Higher Ed reported that ratings will be developed using existing funds and using existing personnel. Will that slow down the development of ratings? Given the slow progress at this point, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Finally, the budget document also contained details about the “true” default rate for student loans, using the life of the loan instead of the 3-year default window used for accountability purposes. The results aren’t pretty for undergraduate students, with default rates pushing 23% on undergraduate Stafford loans. But default rates for graduate loans hover around 6%-7%, which is roughly the interest rates many of these students face.

default

 

What are your thoughts on the President’s budget proposal for higher education? Please share them in the comments section.

Comments on President Obama’s State of the Union Higher Education Proposals

As President Obama enters the last two years of his presidency, he has made higher education one of the key points in his policy platform. The announcement of a plan to give students two years of free tuition at community colleges has gotten a great deal of attention, even though a lot of details are still lacking. (See my analysis of the plan here.) In an unusual Saturday night release, the Obama Administration laid out some details of its tax proposals that will be further elaborated in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address.

Many of the tax provisions will either directly affect higher education, or they will impact students and their families who are currently struggling to pay for college. Here is a quick overview of the provisions:

  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which goes to lower-income families with some wage income. This credit is fully refundable, meaning that families can benefit even if they don’t have a tax liability to offset with a credit (meaning that negative effective tax rates can result).
  • Expand and streamline the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which is designed to offset high costs of child care. This could help the growing number of students who have children.
  • Consolidate the tuition and fees deduction and Lifetime Learning Credit into a streamlined and expanded American Opportunity Tax Credit, and making the AOTC permanent (it is set to expire in 2017). The AOTC would be set at $2,500 per year for five years and would be indexed for inflation. The AOTC would also be expanded to cover part-time students and the refundable portion would increase from $1,000 to $1,500. Finally, Pell Grant funds received would not count toward the AOTC. The AOTC expansion would be partially covered by reducing tax incentives for 529 and Coverdell savings plans.
  • Eliminate any taxes on any student loan balances forgiven after making the full 20 years of payment under income-based repayment plans. Right now, students are scheduled to be taxed on any balances—although few (if any) students have actually faced the tax burden at this point. This would partially be paid for by getting rid of the student loan interest deduction; essentially, students would lose any tax benefits for paying interest during the life of the loan, but they could benefit at the end of the payment period.

Although the exact costs of each of these proposals will not be known until the President releases his budget document later this spring, it appears that much of the revenue needed to pay for these expanded programs will come from higher taxes on higher-income individuals and large financial companies. Those tax increases are extremely unlikely to be passed by a Republican Congress, but some of the individual tax credit proposals may still be considered with funding coming from other sources.

Putting concerns about feasibility and funding aside, there are some things to like about the President’s proposals, while there are other things not to like. I’m generally not a fan of tax credits for higher education, as it is far less efficient to give students and their families money months after enrollment instead of when they actually need it the most. A great new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by George Bulman and Caroline Hoxby examined the effectiveness of federal higher education tax credits and found essentially no impacts of tax credits on enrollment or persistence rates. It would be far better to give students a smaller grant at enrollment than a larger grant later on, but that is unlikely to ever happen due to the political popularity of tax credits on both sides of the aisle.

But I do like the part of the proposal that cuts the student loan interest deduction and directs the savings toward addressing the ticking time bomb of the loan forgiveness tax. The interest deduction is complicated, making it less likely to be claimed by lower-income households. Additionally, making interest partially tax-deductible could be seen as encouraging students to borrow more, potentially putting upward pressures on tuition. That is a difficult claim to verify empirically, but it is something that is often mentioned in discussions about college prices.

Regardless of whether any of these proposals become law, it is exciting to see so much discussion of higher education finance and policy at this point. Hopefully, there will be additional proposals coming from both sides of the political aisle that will help students access and complete high-quality higher education.