House Passes Series of Higher Education Bills

This week the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce passed five higher education bills.

The passage of these bills marks the first action on higher education from the education committees in both the U.S. House and the Senate.  It is expected that these bills will pass the U.S. House but are unlikely to be considered by the U.S. Senate.

Prior-Prior Year Income

Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act (HR 5528) would make permanent in the law prior-prior year income moving forward; advance efforts to simplify the FAFSA, including making the FAFSA available on mobile devices, requiring regular reports from the Department of Education (ED) on FAFSA simplification progress, and strengthening and solidifying an additional simplification tool: the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Data Retrieval tool (DRT); and modify a small provision in current law that would facilitate the earlier release of final Pell Grant numbers from ED, giving colleges the opportunity to provide accurate scholarship and grant information much earlier.

Counseling

Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (HR 3179) would implement new requirements designed to ensure that students make informed decisions when accepting federal loans and Pell Grants. The bill would change the current one-time entrance counseling requirement for student loans into an annual counseling requirement that must be completed before the student accepts the loan(s). Under this provision students must, annually, actively accept every loan by either signing a Master Promissory Note or signing a statement accepting the loan. The required content of exit counseling would be expanded to include more borrower-specific information and annual counseling for Pell Grant recipients prior to the first disbursement of a Pell Grant in an award year would be required.

College Dashboard

Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (HR 3178) would eliminate the College Navigator and its associated affordability and transparency lists, and state higher education charts released by ED. In its place would be a College Dashboard Website, which would be developed and maintained by ED. The Dashboard would include institutional-level information related to: basic institutional facts, such as its sector and web address; enrollment; completion rates; costs; financial aid; and cohort default rates.  The legislation would also mandate that ED include a method for Dashboard users to easily compare institutions and require institutions to ensure that net price calculators are easily identifiable and prominently posted on institutions’ websites, where cost and student aid information is already available.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

HBCU Capital Financing Improvement Act (HR 5530) aims to improve the HBCU Capital Financing Program, which was created by Congress to provide low-cost capital to finance improvements to campus infrastructure at HBCUs. The bill enables ED to help schools understand what financial resources are available.

Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs)

Accessing Higher Education Opportunities Act (HR 5529) focuses on promoting access to education for Hispanic students and aiding Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs).The bill would increase the flexibility of current law to allow HSIs to use grant funds to encourage post-baccalaureate students to enroll in doctoral degree programs that prepare students for health care occupations and allow HSIs to use grant money to support developing or growing dual and concurrent enrollment programs.

Obama Administration Steps Up Protections for Borrowers

In recent weeks the U.S. Department of Education has taken a number of steps to increase protections for student borrowers.

Earlier this month the Department announced new rules to simplify and strengthen existing student loan forgiveness regulations for student defrauded or deceived by a higher education institution.

In addition, the Department submitted recommendations to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) regarding higher education accrediting agencies that are to be reviewed as part of the regular review process. Among the recommendations made by Department staff was the recommendations that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, should no longer be recognized as an accreditor, and, at its recent spring meeting, NACIQI voted 10-3 in support of the recommendation not to re-recognize ACICS.  That recommendation now comes to the Department for a decision.

Finally the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) provided new performance data collection of key performance data on the federal student aid portfolio.  Among the key findings in the report: enrollment in plans such as Income-Based Repayment (IBR), Pay as You Earn (PAYE), and Revised Pay as You Earn (REPAYE) is increasing; hardship deferments, delinquencies, and new defaults are decreasing while income-driven repayment (IDR) enrollment has increased; and the delinquency rate has experienced year-over-year decreases.

In the coming weeks, FSA will release information about its institution oversight responsibilities, including data on institutions that paid fines over the past five fiscal years for violating laws and regulations and historical data about institutions required to submit a letter of credit to continue in federal student aid programs.

Second Chance Pell Grant Pilot Program

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced 67 colleges and universities selected for the Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program.

The program will allow eligible incarcerated students in federal and state penal institutions to receive federal Pell Grants and pursue postsecondary education and training with the goal of helping them get jobs and support their families when they are released.

Selected institutions will partner with over 100 federal and state penal institutions to enroll approximately 12,000 incarcerated students — likely to be released in five years — in education and training programs.

The vast majority of selected institutions are public two- and four-year institutions that will offer classroom-based instruction on-site at corrections facilities.  Others will offer online education or a hybrid of classroom/online instruction.  More than 10% are Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and about 30% percent will offer prison-based education for the first time.

Increase in U.S. Educational Attainment

New data from the Lumina Foundation’s “A Stronger Nation 2016” report indicate that the percentage of working age Americans (ages 25-64) who hold high-quality credentials beyond high school reached 45.3% nationally in 2014. That is an increase of 5.3% from 2013. Nearly all of the increase resulted from the inclusion, for the first time, of certificates – often awarded by community and technical colleges – in the base calculation. According to Lumina, nearly 5% of Americans hold high-quality postsecondary certificates. Despite the sharp increase, these rates remain short of Lumina’s “Goal 2025” that 60% of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025.

The report also lists Washington as ranking among the top five states in attainment of a postsecondary credential (51.6%) – up from 42% in 2008. The inclusion of certificates added 7% to Washington’s overall attainment rate. Washington ranks behind only Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, and Minnesota.

Senate Fiscal Committee Approves Funding for Education

Last week, the U. S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would reinstate year-round Pell Grants for low-income students and provide a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The 2017 appropriations bill for the U. S. Departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services is a mix of investments and reductions:

  • The Pell Grant maximum grant award is increased from $5,815 to $5,935.
  • Reinstates year-round Pell Grants.
  • The U.S. Department of Education budget was reduced by $220 million from the prior year.
  • Funding was maintained at the same level for TRIO, GEAR Up, Federal Work-Study programs, Adult Education State Grants and Technical Education State Grants.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grant was reduced by $73,000.
  • Transfers $1.2 billion from the Pell Grant program to support other programs including increases in NIH funding, and Title I.
  • NIH funding is increased for research efforts related to cancer, Alzheimer’s and fighting the growing opioid abuse epidemic.

New Effort from Obama Administration Assists Those In the Criminal System

Late last week, the White House announced a “Fair Chance” higher education pledge, in which organizations, including companies and institutions of higher education make a pledge to help those who have been accused or convicted of crimes get a second chance at improving their lives and building their education and careers.

Institutions of higher education, in particular, will qualify for the Pledge by improving admissions processes, such as limiting questions or the use of information regarding an student’s criminal past and supporting the work of students and faculty members who teach in corrections institutions or help those in such institutions plan to continue their educations after their sentences.

To date over 100 organizations have made the Pledge ranging from Coca-Cola to Catholic Charities USA to Dave’s Killer Bread to Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Considers Student Loan Playbook

Loan servicers soon could be required to send borrowers personalized information regarding different loan repayment plans. Or borrowers might see these options spelled out when they log into their student loan accounts.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is considering a Student Loan Payback Playbook. The Playbook would be a way for student loan borrowers to get better and timely information from their loan servicers about repayment options. The Bureau is seeking feedback on two versions through mid-June.