First signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 as part of his Great Society campaign, the Higher Education Act’s original purpose was to solidify and expand the federal government’s involvement in higher education policy. Now up for its 10th reauthorization in the coming months (most recently in 2008), it will likely receive much attention from postsecondary pundits as well as trade groups, professional organizations, public policy institutes, and invested colleges and universities.
Fast-forward some nine reauthorizations following the act, much has changed and a catalogue of student aid programs intended to increase college access and choice has emerged. From the TRIO and Pell Grant programs in 1968 and 1972 to the Parent PLUS and unsubsidized Stafford loan programs in 1980 and 1992, congress has repeatedly attempted to simplify student aid and make college for affordable. Though laudable in approach, the Higher Education Act has evolved into an extraordinarily costly and complex conundrum which has puzzled even the most acute observers. Following the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, federal aid authorized under Title IV exceeded $169 billion in the 2012-2013 academic year — a doubling of aid over the previous decade. During the same period, federal loans topped $101 billion (an increase of 86% from the previous decade) and federal grants eclipsed $47 billion (an increase of 134%).
Although the Higher Education Act continues to provide students the opportunity to access, enter, and succeed in postsecondary learning, some programs have proven outdated while others have ironically made it more difficult to keep the cost of college down. The current federal Pell Grant system, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and excessive red tape, for instance, are some of the more taxing applications in the most recent proposal.
- Simplify Federal Pell Grants
From 2002 to 2013, the number of students receiving Pell Grants increased from 4.8 million to 8.8 million while expenditures grew from $14.8 billion to $32.3 billion. Conventionally, the size of a student’s grant is determined by the student’s expected family contribution (EFC), the cost of attendance (COA), the student’s enrollment status and whether the student enrolls for the full academic year. These parameters are too often ambiguous and difficult to measure. To make matters simpler, the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act suggests Pell be determined based on family size (more members, larger award) and adjusted gross income (AGI). Although the act does not consider inflation-adjusted grant allocation (maximum is $5,730), the outlook is simple, straightforward, and (most importantly) easy to follow and implement. As a result, students and families can be more aware of the type and amount of aid they will receive.
- Streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
The FAFSA is an application required by postsecondary institutions to award federal financial aid to qualified recipients. Being informed of the FAFSA, or simply completing it, is an incredibly byzantine and arduous task in and of itself. The 2014-2015 FAFSA, for instance, contains over 100 questions and is used to calculate a student’s EFC. Although a new IRS Data Retrieval Tool can help save families time and effort, the process is still unnecessarily detailed and duplicative. Judith Scott-Clayton, assistant professor of economics and education at Columbia University, discovered that the federal government can assess the financial needs of families just as effectively (or more so) with just a few straightforward questions.
Although other recommendations suggest that simplification may lead to unintended consequences and can therefore harm the very same students the federal government is trying to help, a growing amount of research suggests that the conventional FAFSA is similarly “a significant barrier for getting more low-income and first-generation students to apply to and enroll in college.” As many as 2 million Pell-eligible students fail to fill out (or complete) the form, as unclear questions discourage applicants from completing the application.
- Reduce Federal Regulatory Burdens
Excessive federal regulation is a frequently cited driver of college costs. In 2012 alone, the U.S. Department of Education issued 270 regulatory modifications with limited time for institutions to respond.
Title I, Section 109 continues the federal college scorecard which “provide[s] students and families with information regarding higher education affordability and value for each institution of higher education that receives funds under title IV.” However, many pundits believe the rating system has the potential to turn college advising on its head, leaving students with another one-size-fits-all ranking system based on affordability. What’s more, the scorecard tends to provide an oversimplified view of college affordability and value. As affordability is based on the average net price of attendance, many students (who are not considered “average”) will be shielded from the actual “sticker price.” As the College Navigator provides an objective and exhaustive analysis of postsecondary institutions, a federal scorecard only serves to complicate the matter.
Title XI of the most recent HEA proposal — Reports, Studies, and Miscellaneous Provisions — includes mandated research ranging from consumer protections for students to recommendations for student loan counseling. Additionally, Sec. 1107 of the proposal establishes an “Institutional Risk-Sharing Commission” whereby members “develop recommendations for implementation of a new risk-sharing system for institutions of higher education that participate in the Federal Direct Loan Program…through which institutions would be held financially accountable for poor student outcomes.” These studies and regulations – along with many others in Title XI – appear to be burdensome and unnecessary. Colleges and universities already participate in a plethora of research conducted by the Department of Education as part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). This in and of itself is a burden, as many believe mandatory IPEDS reporting would benefit from “common sense reforms and streamlining” as well as the removal of data that is no longer relevant.
Higher education has a long and deep-rooted history with the federal government. While legislation such as the Higher Education Act helps to make college more affordable for those who deserve it most, much can still be done to make higher learning more accessible. By tackling Pell Grant reform, streamlining the FAFSA, and standardizing federal regulation we can once again ensure colleges and universities are best serving the American public. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a sweeping and far-reaching achievement, influencing countless students in their pursuit of higher learning. It’s time to get it right.
Tim Zimmer formerly served as an editorial assistant at the Center for College Affordability. He is a 2013 graduate of Northwestern University and a M.S.Ed. student in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania