It will soon be easier for students and parents with adverse credit histories to qualify for federal PLUS loans. Under new the Education Department’s (ED’s) new rules – which were released on Wednesday and are expected to take effect in March – ED will review only two years (rather than five) of a prospective borrower’s credit history to determine loan eligibility, and will excuse up to $2,085 in certain types of delinquent debt when running initial credit checks.
ED agreed to revisit the rules following pressure from many colleges and families who were angered after ED tightened the PLUS loan standards in 2011. The 2011 changes resulted in thousands of sudden loan denials and, consequently, enrollment declines and revenue losses at some institutions. According to Inside Higher Ed, department officials expect that the new standards will allow an additional 370,000 applicants to pass the initial credit check for PLUS loans.
Representative Chaka Fattah – Pennsylvania Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Education Task Force – lauded the new standards; however others connected with historically black colleges have criticized ED for not moving quickly enough. Meanwhile, some policy analysts and consumer advocates argue that ability-to-pay criteria are necessary to prevent borrowers from being saddled with unmanageable debt, and that the new rules don’t do enough to safeguard against default.
If defaulting becomes an issue as a result of the new standards, the silver lining is policymakers will at least know about it and, hopefully, be able to do something. As part of ED’s changes to the PLUS program, the department will begin calculating and publishing annual cohort default rates for institutions receiving PLUS loans. That information should help illuminate whether borrowers are getting in over their heads.
Ultimately though, as EdCentral points out:
“The Department must do a better job reaching out to parents and helping them understand the terms and conditions of their loans, including the ability to repay their loan as a percent of their income if they consolidate into a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan. Better counseling won’t solve all the issues with the PLUS loan program. But it’s a start until we can ensure PLUS loans are a safe product for families and we can improve access to better aid options like grants for low-income families.”
 ED currently only calculates cohort default rates for colleges that receive Stafford loans.
On Thursday, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) released a policy brief examining the potential consequences of Pay It Forward (PIF) (please see our previous blogs for background information). The AASCU brief summarizes other, similar approaches to paying for college and analyses PIF as a potential state approach to financing public higher education.
The report describes the following “13 Realities of PIF College Financing Proposals”:
- Most students could pay more, not less, for college.
- Considerable uncertainty would be introduced into campus budgeting and planning efforts.
- The majority of college costs are not covered.
- Students from sectors with the heaviest student debt burdens would be ineligible to participate.
- The class divides in public higher education, and more broadly, in American society, could intensify.
- Costs borne by students pursuing privately financed degrees and higher-paying careers would increase dramatically.
- PIF is duplicative—there are existing public and private programs that calibrate student debt to earnings.
- PIF’s start-up costs would be enormous.
- Payment collection would be costly and challenging.
- Campus and state leaders would have strong incentives to promote programs leading to high-paying occupations, to the possible detriment of the liberal and applied arts, humanities, and public service careers.
- Underlying college cost drivers would not be addressed.
- Support for state and institutional student financial aid could dissipate.
- Support for maintaining existing state investment in public higher education would erode, creating a pathway to privatization.
In addition, the authors discuss “The Unknowns of ‘Pay It Forward’”:
- How will institutional financing gaps be addressed?
- How would payments be collected?
- Who would control PIF funds?
- How would PIF’s structure and revenue generation differ from campus to campus?
- How would PIF complement or conflict with federal higher education programs?
- How would transfer students be integrated into PIF?
- What would be the consequences for noncompleters?
- How would college savings change under PIF?
- How would PIF affect campus philanthropic campaigns?
The report’s conclusion reads, “Creating a lifelong tax and privatizing public higher education through pay it forward is not the solution to addressing college affordability.”
I recommend that readers review AASCU’s full report.
On Thursday, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) released its most State Outlook. According to the report, state operating support for public four-year colleges and universities is 3.6 percent higher for FY 2015 than it was for FY 2014. Of the 49 states that have passed a budget thus far, support for higher education increased in 43 states and decreased in only 6 states. Of those 6 states that reduced funding, all were under 3 percent: Alaska, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Washington (0.8 percent decrease) and West Virginia.
There was a relatively small amount of variation between states in terms of their year-to-year funding changes. For FY 2015, the spread between the state with the largest gain and that with the largest cut was only a 24 percent—this is compared to 57 percent, 25 percent and 46 percent, respectively, in FYs 2012, 2013 and 2014. The report notes that this decreased volatility likely indicates “a continued post-recession stabilization of states’ budgets.”
Charitable contributions to U.S. colleges and universities increased 9 percent in 2013, to $33.8 billion—the highest recorded in the history of the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey. In addition, college and university endowments grew by an average of 11.7 percent in FY 2013, according to a January 2014 study released by the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the Commonfund Institute. This represents a significant improvement over the -0.3 percent return in FY 2012.
The report also describes ten highlights/trends from states’ 2014 legislative sessions, those being:
- State initiatives linking student access to economic and workforce development goals.
- Tuition freezes or increase caps in exchange for state reinvestment—this occurred in Washington and another example is discussed in our previous post.
- Performance-based funding systems that attempt to align institutional outcomes with state needs and priorities.
- Governor emphasis on efforts to advance state educational attainment goals.
- Interest in policies related to vocational and technical education, including allowing community colleges to grant certain four-year degrees (as described in our previous post).
- Efforts to develop a common set of expectations for what K-12 students should know in mathematics and language arts.
- STEM-related initiatives, including additional funding for STEM scholarships in Washington.
- Financial support for the renovating and/or constructing of new campus facilities—unfortunately, Washington’s legislature did not pass a capital budget.
- Bills allowing individuals to carry guns on public college and university campuses—as of March 2014, seven states had passed such legislation.
- Legislation that extends in-state tuition or, as occurred in Washington, state financial aid to undocumented students.
Other noteworthy policy topics described in the report include:
- Student financial aid programs—some states broadened their programs while others limited them;
- Online and competency-based education reciprocity agreements;
- “Pay It Forward” Funding Schemes; and
- Consumer protection as it pertains to student recruitment, advertising and financial aid at for-profit colleges.
As the UW’s Office of Federal Relations reported on their blog, yesterday Senate Democrats released plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). Their proposal focuses on four main goals:
- Increasing affordability and reducing college costs for students,
- Tackling the student loan crisis by helping borrowers better manage debt,
- Holding schools accountable to students and taxpayers, and
- Helping students and families make informed choices.
In addition, today the House Committee on Education and the Workforce introduced reauthorization-related bills of their own, including:
For more information, check out the Federal Relations blog and a recent article by EdCentral. We’ll post more information on OPBlog over the coming weeks.
In an effort to boost international student retention, a new survey by the NAFSA: Association of International Educators seeks to understand why international students drop out or transfer before earning a degree. The survey asked 517 international undergraduate students, of which 110 had either transferred or were planning to transfer, about their college experience and their reasons for changing schools. In a parallel survey, about 500 international education professionals were asked why they thought international students transferred.
The students who participated in the study cited financial factors as the top reasons for their dissatisfaction:
- Limited access to jobs and internships (37 percent)
- Affordability (36 percent)
- Dearth of scholarship opportunities (34 percent)
- Meal plans (26 percent)
- Quality of housing (17 percent)
Interestingly, the factors that educators believe are hurting international student retention are quite different. Although nearly two-thirds of international education professionals named “financial problems” as a primary cause of attrition, the other top reasons they listed focused more on academic preparedness and fit:
- Finding a “better fit” institution (67 percent)
- Financial problems (64 percent)
- Academic difficulties (62 percent)
- Inadequate English language skills (40 percent)
- Dissatisfaction with location (34 percent)
The findings suggest that there is a disconnect between the expectations of international undergraduates and those of college administrators. Inside Higher Ed quotes Rahul Choudaha, the report’s principal investigator, as saying, “Students may be underestimating the academic preparation expected to be on a campus and they are overestimating the availability of jobs, availability of scholarships, availability of financial aid and so on.” College recruiters, thus, should help manage international students’ expectations by recognizing and being upfront about the availability of job and scholarship opportunities on their campus. In addition, as international students may be underestimating the level of academic and language preparedness necessary to succeed at American universities, special tutoring and academic advising services may be required to help them succeed and stay. Together, these approaches could help boost retention and clarify expectations, so both administrators and students have a better experience.
To read the NAFSA findings, click here. Or, check out the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed articles on the issue.
The College Board recently released a new report, entitled “Redesigning the Pell Grant Program to Boost Access and Completion,” which provides numerous recommendations for improving the Pell Grant. The report is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s push to research financial aid improvements prior to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The main recommendations involve making the eligibility process simpler by streamlining the FAFSA. The report claims that limiting the necessary financial information to Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) and family size (two measures that are easily obtained from a tax return) would boost completion of the FAFSA and improve access to college. Such an approach would also allow colleges to report average net price for students within given AGI and exemption ranges on their websites, making it easier for students and their families to plan for the future.
The College Board also recommends basing eligibility on “prior-prior year tax data,” meaning families would not need to update their financial information each the spring. This change would help prevent low-income families from missing financial aid priority deadlines which often fall before the current year’s tax data are available. Furthermore, students whose parents did not need to file a tax return in the prior year would automatically be awarded the maximum Pell Grant without needing to enter financial information.
One of the more ambitious proposals in the report is the creation of government-funded savings accounts for families whose income would qualify them for the Pell Grant. Given that many studies find that early communication and college savings are crucial to increasing the number of low-income students enrolled in college, this program would seek to engage students and their parents at a young age. Under the proposal, low-income children around the ages of 11-12 would receive federal education accounts in which the government would deposit up to 10 percent of the maximum Pell Grant each year. The account would earn interest until the child turned 18, at which time he or she could begin to withdraw 25 percent of the balance per year (if enrolled in a four-year degree program). Any unused funds would be returned to the treasury when the student turned 24. The report estimates such a proposal would cost $3.5 billion to implement.
Washington State has long recognized that early communication and engagement are key to expanding college access. The state’s College Bound Scholarship program is a means-tested program that promises four years of free tuition and a book allowance to any Washington State student who is in foster care, whose family is low-income, or who qualifies for free and reduced-priced lunch in middle school. In 8th grade, students sign a pledge to graduate high school with a 2.0 GPA or better, to not commit a felony, and to submit a FAFSA. The program has been hugely successful, with ever-increasing numbers of students applying for and using their College Bound Scholarships each year.
To read more about the College Board’s proposal, check out the full report here.
In April 2013, UW President Michael K. Young convened a Task Force to study how the UW could better respond to and prevent sexual assault on campus. The Task Force, which included leaders from the Counseling Center, HR, Athletics, Academic Units, Student Government, Housing and Food Services, UWPD, Harborview, and Bothell and Tacoma campuses, put out a comprehensive report on its findings in October 2013. Given the current national attention focused on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, and the need for a comprehensive response, the UW’s report can be seen as a blueprint for creating a successful sexual assault prevention and response program.
Here are the eight major goals for any sexual assault prevention and response program, as outlined by the report:
- Have a visible, robust, easily-accessible, collaborative network of response and intervention services for students in need
- Educate all students about sexual assault
- Create a community that knows how to respond and provide support
- Provide an investigation and disciplinary process appropriate for sexual assault
- Demonstrate compliance with all applicable federal and state laws, regulations, and guidance
- Generate data, metrics and reporting that allow for sound decision making
- Establish policies and procedures that set direction, clarify intent, and guide coordinated work
- Provide effective oversight and following guiding principles to ensure common direction
The Task Force also included 18 concrete and specific recommendations, including hiring a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner at the UW Medical Center, providing better sexual assault prevention training to students and staff at orientation, and revising UW policies related to sexual assault, to ensure that these goals are met. It also gave a list of funding priorities, such as hiring a consultant to overhaul the Student Conduct Code, funding the UWPD Victim Advocate and a Sexual Assault Investigator, and funding training and materials. The group will convene again in October to give a status update to the President, and will have periodic meeting after that to measure progress and define new goals and recommendations.
To read the Task Force’s full report, please click here.
On Tuesday, Stanford’s Board of Trustees announced it “will not directly invest in approximately 100 publicly traded companies for which coal extraction is the primary business, and will divest of any current direct holdings in such companies.” Furthermore, Stanford stated it would encourage its external investment managers to avoid investments in such companies.
The decision was made at the recommendation of the university’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL), which had spent several months analyzing a petition by a student group called Fossil Free Stanford. After conducting an extensive research-based review of the issues, APRIL concluded that sufficient coal alternatives exist and that divestment “provides leadership on a critical matter facing our world and is an appropriate application of the university’s investment responsibility policy.”
This issue has arisen several times at the UW, which (like Stanford) is a leader in environmental stewardship and sustainability. Stanford’s decision may set a precedent for other universities, including the UW, that have grappled with this issue.
The U.S. Department of Education recently released a list of 55 colleges and universities that are being investigated for possible violations of Title IX, particularly in regards to their handling of sexual assault investigations. Title IX is a federal gender-equity law that applies to all institutions receiving federal funds. Recently, several universities have come under scrutiny for alleged mishandlings of sexual assault cases and investigations.
The list comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s recent unveiling of new, tougher guidelines for handling sexual assault on college campuses. The report encourages universities to:
- create “climate surveys” designed to measure the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses;
- better train college officials in responding to survivors of sexual assault;
- change certain confidentiality provisions in order to facilitate reporting; and
- amend campus disciplinary policies to be closer aligned to those put out by the Department of Education.
The administration has also signaled that it will step up its enforcement of Title IX provisions. Student activists seemed encouraged by the news, those some claimed the administration did not go far enough to ensure that colleges are punished for Title IX violations.
To see the list of institutions facing Title IX investigations, click here. To read more analysis about the inquiry, check out this article in the New York Times.
TICAS recently published a white paper entitled “Should All Student Loan Payments Be Income-Driven? Trade-Offs and Challenges.” The white paper does a great job of summarizing existing income-driven repayment (IDR) plans that are available to students in the US (see the table below, which was drawn from page 4 of the report). TICAS highlights the complicated nature of many of the IDR options, and questions whether the US should automatically enroll students in IDR, as is the case in the UK and Australia. While automatically enrolling borrowers in IDR may help reduce default rates and lessen the burden of student loans, it may also increase the time horizon for paying off loans, thereby increasing the amount that borrowers ultimately pay over the lifetime of the loan.
Summary of Existing Income-Driven Repayment Plans in the US
Monthly Payment Cap
Income-Based Repayment (Classic IBR)
All borrowers with federal student loans (Direct or FFEL), new or old, with a partial financial hardship (PFH).
15% of discretionary
Borrowers who take out their first loan on or after July 1, 2014, and have a PFH.
10% of discretionary
Pay As You Earn
Since late 2012
Direct Loan borrowers who took out their first loan after Sept. 30, 2007 and at least one after Sept. 30, 2011, and have a PFH.
10% of discretionary
Borrowers with Direct Loans, new or old; no PFH requirement.
The lesser of: 20% of
discretionary income and
12-yr repayment amount x
income percentage factor
For more information on the details of IDR and the benefits and challenges of the system, please check out the TICAS report.
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