Yesterday, the Senate and House of Representatives approved legislation to avert the fiscal cliff. The deal postpones the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts—known as “the sequester”—by two months and increases tax rates only for individuals earning over $400,000 and couples earning over $450,000. The bill also preserves funding for Pell Grants and extends for five years the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which allows students and their parents to claim up to $2,500 a year for tuition and college expenses.
For details, please see the blog post provided by Christy Gullion, Director of Federal Relations, and the articles provided by Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle
A bill introduced to the House of Representatives earlier this month by Rep. Thomas E. Petri, a Wisconsin Republican, would overhaul the federal student-loan programs. Under the proposal:
- Monthly payments would be capped at 15 percent of discretionary income—the new income-based repayment program currently caps payments at 10 percent of discretionary income.
- Payments would be withheld directly from paychecks—essentially eliminating the potential for defaulting, a welcome thought for schools with high default rates (predominately for-profits) which are at risk of losing eligibility to participate in federal aid programs.
- Interest accrual would be capped at 50 percent of a loan’s total at the time of graduation—good news for borrowers, often low-income, who take upwards of 10 years to repay loans.
- Subsidies would be eliminated that currently pay interest while undergraduates are in college—a means of offsetting the cost of capping interest, but potentially detrimental to low-income students.
- Loan forgiveness after a certain number of years (usually 20 or 25) would be eliminated—this could dissuade students from entering public-service careers for which loans are currently forgiven after 10 years.
The proposed system resembles those used in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. If passed, the new rules would only impact new loans.
While some components of the bill could be beneficial, such as the cap on interest accrual, many other components appear problematic. The Chronicle reports that the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators expressed support for the proposal saying, “We need to make it as easy as possible for borrowers to stay on the straight and narrow.” But others, such as the advocacy group Institute for College Access & Success, worry the bill would “take away some key tools for managing federal student debt,” such as forbearance and deferments.
Since similar proposals from Rep. Petri have had little success in the past and since his latest bill has no cosponsors, the bill is unlikely to be passed. However, it could be discussed during next year’s Congressional debate over reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which expires at the end of 2013.
The NY Times reports that although the federal government’s recently-expanded income-based repayment program is more affordable for some students, it may come with a hefty, and unexpected tax burden. The federal government will generally forgive whatever loans are left after 10 to 25 years of income-based payments; however, unless you attend a program for teachers or take a job in public service, you will have to pay income taxes on that forgiven debt. For someone who attended graduate or professional school and racked up six-figures of debt, the tax could easily be five-figures and, perhaps most worrisome, would be due immediately.
So, how many people could have to face this formidable tax and what would it amount to for the average borrower? The Education Department estimates that approximately two million people had applied for income-based repayment as of Oct. 31. About 1.3 million of those applicants qualified for reduced payment, another 440,000 applications were still pending. According to the article, “400,000 borrowers from 2012 through 2021, each with a beginning average loan balance of about $39,500, would each eventually receive loan forgiveness of about $41,000.” The amount forgiven can be larger than the original balance because of accrued interest payments. Depending on your tax bracket, the federal tax on $41,000 of forgiven loans could amount to over $10,000 and, if you live in a state with income taxes, you’d need to deal with those as well.
That said, since $41,000 is more than double what is given to the average Pell recipient over four-years, a $10,000 tax payment could be considered fair. The New America Foundation and others have argued that the new repayment program provides only marginal benefits to low-income borrowers, but “generous benefits to borrowers with higher federal loan balances” who have the potential to earn high incomes later on. As The Quick and the Ed notes, someone who earns $400,000 at the high-point of their career may still receive over $80,000 in loan forgiveness. In the latter situation, a large, lump-sum tax payment is likely very fair.
The article provides some useful resources for those who are participating in the income-based repayment plan and those who are considering it, including:
The Wisconsin Education Approval Board, which oversees all for-profit colleges located in the state and any online-learning programs offered to its residents, may require that those institutions achieve specific performance standards in order to operate within Wisconsin. Specifically, that board is proposing to require that at least 60 percent of a college’s students complete their studies within a certain time-frame and at least 60 percent of its graduates have jobs. Public universities and private nonprofit colleges are not under the board’s jurisdiction and would therefore be exempt from the requirements.
The board already collects and publishes data on its institutions. According to those reports, average completion rates fell from 82 to 59 percent over the last six years and the percentage of graduates who were employed during a given year dropped from 44 to 22 percent (in the same time frame).
The Chronicle reports that the board is basing its standards on what they believe “Wisconsin consumers would find ethical, responsible, and acceptable for institutions choosing to enroll them.” However, for-profit colleges have already submitted letters to the board arguing that the proposed standards are “arbitrary and should not be broadly applied to a diverse set of programs, which often enroll underserved populations.”
While the federal government’s “gainful employment” rule is similar to Wisconsin’s proposal, it is unusual to see a state attempt this type of regulatory system. Some states have increased their requirements for online and for-profit institutions—but Wisconsin’s proposal is especially aggressive. For-profits that wish to operate in Washington must receive authorization from the Washington Student Achievement Council, which considers institutions; “financial stability, business practices, academic programs, and faculty qualifications”—but does not yet hold them to specific graduation or employment standards.
On Wednesday, Wisconsin’s board voted unanimously to postpone a final decision until a team made of board members, representatives from colleges and universities, and State legislators can review the proposal more thoroughly. The team is scheduled to make recommendations to the board in June of 2013.
Yesterday, the Office of Financial Management, in partnership with the Council of Presidents and the Department of Enterprise Services, published an updated version of the Statewide Public Four-Year Dashboard. The Dashboard displays institution- and state-level data on student enrollment, progress, and degree production to help better inform policy makers and the general public.
More information about the Dashboard and the data it displays (drawn from the Public Centralized Higher Education Enrollment System) is available in two OPB briefs:
Here is a quick look at some recent happenings in the world of higher education:
- The College Scorecard confuses students and lacks desired information, says a report released today by the Center for American Progress (CAP). The College Scorecard, which President Obama proposed last February, is an online tool to help students compare colleges’ costs, completion rates, average student-loan debt, and more. The CAP asked focus groups of college-bound high-school students for their opinions on the scorecard’s design, content, and overall effectiveness. Student responses indicated that they did not understand the scorecard’s purpose; they would like the ability to customize the scorecard according to their interests; they want more information on student-loan debt; and they would prefer seeing four-year graduation rates, rather than six-year rates. The CAP report includes recommendations for improving the readability and usability of not just the scorecard, but of government disclosures in general.
- The U.S. House of Representatives passed the STEM Jobs Act on Friday by a 245 to 139 vote. The bill would eliminate the “diversity visa program,” which currently distributes 55,000 visas per year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Those visas would instead go to foreign graduates from U.S. universities who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Proponents of the Republican-backed bill say it would keep “highly trained, in-demand” workers in the U.S., boosting the nation’s economy and preserving its global competitiveness. While the White House and most Democrats support the expansion of STEM visas, they oppose the bill’s attempt to eliminate the diversity visa program. Consequently, the measure is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate.
- The overlapping agendas of Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin governors could signal a new Republican approach to higher education policy, says Inside Higher Ed. The three governors agree on cost-cutting strategies such as requiring some colleges to offer $10,000 bachelor’s degrees; limiting tuition increases at flagship institutions; linking institutions’ graduation rates to state appropriations; and letting performance indicators, such as student evaluations, determine faculty salaries. Although the governors’ proposed reforms appeal to some voters, “actions taken by all three have been sharply criticized not only by faculty members and higher education leaders in their states, but also by national leaders, who view the erosion of state funding and increased restrictions on what institutions can do a breach of the traditional relationship between state lawmakers and public colleges and universities.”
On Tuesday, 11 states voted on ballot measures that could impact higher education. The following table (based on one from The Chronicle) summarizes how those measures fared.
YES–the measure passed NO–the measure failed
||Would temporarily increase sales and income taxes in order to raise approx. $6-billion in revenue and stave off $963-million worth of cuts to the public colleges.
||Would allow a $11.3-million bond issue to fund capital for a diagnostic facility at the University of Maine.
||Would let children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates provided they meet certain conditions.
||Would let graduate students form unions and bargain collectively.
||Would raise cigarette taxes and use the revenue to create a Health and Education Trust Fund. About 30 percent of revenue would go to higher education.
||Would require proof of citizenship in order for a person to receive certain state services, which includes attending Montana’s public colleges.
||Would let the state issue a $750-million bond for buildings and upgrades at public and private colleges.
||Would authorize a $120-million sale for certain higher education repairs and improvements.
||Would ban affirmative action programs in the state, including their use in public colleges’ admission policies.
||Would give Rhode Island College up to $50-million for its health and nursing programs’ facilities.
||Would allow the UW and WSU to invest publicly-generated revenue (i.e. parking fees and indirect-cost reimbursement for grants) in corporate stock.
||Would renew the requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote in order to create new taxes or raise existing ones–effectively making it more difficult for the state to generate new revenue for programs including higher education.
One of several recent Pell Grant changes has made it harder for some students to finish school and earn a degree, according to Inside Higher Ed. Effective July 1st this year, the federal government decreased the duration of Pell eligibility from 18 semesters to 12 semesters as a means of both cutting costs and incentivizing students to graduate on time. While most students take less than 12 semesters to earn their bachelor’s degree, existing Pell recipients (who expected to receive 18 semesters of eligibility) were not grandfathered in when the changes took place.
Of the estimated 62,000 students affected by the change, colleges say the hardest hit were transfer students and students who have attended some college, but never earned a degree. More specifically, many impacted students seem to be those who:
- Left school before graduating, but have returned to complete their degree;
- Transferred, or “swirled,” between multiple schools—a growing trend in higher education;
- Enrolled with a for-profit institution, but transferred elsewhere before graduating; and/or
- Changed programs multiple times within the same school.
According to an “informal tally” by the California State University system, about 6,100 of the system’s students (4 percent) lost Pell Grant eligibility because of the new 12-semester limit.
Since some students who lose eligibility may not be able to afford to continue their education and earn a degree, this change could conflict with the government’s emphasis on improving graduation rates and increasing the number of degree-holders. However, as Congress gears up to deal with impending sequester cuts, the financial benefits of these types of tough decisions are increasingly likely to outweigh the nonfinancial costs.
The New America Foundation recently released a report on impending changes to the federal Income-Based Student Loan Repayment Program (IBR). The report claims that these changes will benefit high-income, high-debt borrowers, not low-income students with moderate student loan debt (note that the current average undergraduate debt load is $26,000).
IBR is a system in which borrowers peg monthly payments to adjusted gross income (AGI), protecting borrowers from paying high monthly payments if AGI is low. In the past, monthly payments under IBR were capped at less than 15 percent of AGI, minus a cost-of-living adjustment equal to 150 percent of the federal poverty line. Any balance that remained after 25 years of on-time payments was forgiven.
The new system, intended to help low- and middle-income students in the face of skyrocketing tuition, was introduced by Congress in 2011. This new IBR program would peg payments to no more than 10 percent of AGI, less 150 percent of the federal poverty line, with any balance forgiven after 20 years. While this measure was intended to target the neediest borrowers, the New America Foundation found that it makes very little difference for most low-and middle income students. Most students with moderate student debt and a consistently low income will pay $5 to $20 less per month under “new IBR”. However, students with high incomes and high student loan debt—i.e., graduate and professional students—will pay much less, and will be more likely to have their loans forgiven in the long run.
The New American Foundation claims that these changes will be costly and of little benefit to low-income students. It proposes several changes to “new IBR,” including:
- Make new IBR available only to borrowers who make less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line;
- Provide loan forgiveness after 20 years only if the student’s initial debt amount was less than $40,000, higher amounts would be forgiven after 25 years; and,
- Require married couples who repay their loans through IBR to file jointly, and use their combined household income for the AGI calculation. Currently, a married couple may file separately, allowing a spouse with student loans and a small income to qualify for loan forgiveness and low monthly payments despite living in a high-income household.
To learn more, check out a discussion of the plan in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Last week, a Los Angeles Times/USC poll found that support for Proposition 30 is dwindling. Only 46 percent of registered voters now approve the California ballot initiative designed to deflect almost $1-billion in state higher-education cuts—a 9-point drop over last month’s poll by the same organizations. Meanwhile, 42 percent of respondents oppose the proposition.
If Prop 30 passes:
- The state’s sales tax would increase by 0.25 percent through 2016;
- Californians earning more than $250,000 would pay higher income taxes through 2018;
- The resulting $6 to 8.5 billion in additional revenue generated each year would allow the state to continue its current level of higher education funding into, at least, the coming year; and
- The University of California system would freeze undergraduate tuition rates.
If Prop 30 fails:
- California community colleges would lose $338 million;
- The California State system would lose $250 million—requiring the system to lay off (by their estimate) 1,500 faculty and staff, reduce next year’s Fall enrollment by about 20,000 students, and increase tuition and fees for in-state students by 5 percent; and
- The University of California system would lose $375 million—resulting in, as System officials declared, a tuition increase of as much as 20 percent.
Proponents of Prop 30 face resistance from the state’s fiscal conservatives and competition from another ballot initiative, Proposition 38, which would raise income taxes through 2024 and direct most of the $10 billion per year in revenue toward K-12. If both bills pass, California’s constitution requires that the proposition with the most votes cancel out the other. This is because Prop 30 and Prop 38 both increase personal income tax rates and could, therefore, be seen as conflicting. However, Prop 38 appears to have little momentum, relative to Prop 30 and it is unlikely that both bills will pass.
← Previous Page — Next Page →