Office of Planning and Budgeting

Yesterday, March 4th, President Obama submitted his fiscal year 2015 budget request to Congress. The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) has published their analysis of the budget as has the Education Policy Program at New America.

TICAS states that the President’s proposal “takes important steps towards making college affordable for Americans by reducing the need to borrow and making federal student loan payments more manageable.” Specifically, his budget:

  • Invests in Pell Grants and prevents them from being taxed.  The budget provides funds to cover the scheduled $100 increase in the maximum Pell award, raising it from $5,730 in 2014-15 to $5,830 in 2015-16. TICAS notes that although this increase will help nearly 9 million students, “the maximum Pell Grant is expected to cover the smallest share of the cost of attending a four-year public college since the program started in the 1970s.”
  • Makes the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) permanent.  TICAS supports making the AOTC permanent as they note research suggests the AOTC is the most likely of the current tax benefits to increase college access and success.  New America, however, recommends the administration convert the tax credit to a grant program as they state researchers have found grants to be a more effective way to deliver aid to low-income families.
  • Improves and streamlines income-based repayment (IBR) programs. Under the President’s budget, more borrowers would be eligible to cap their monthly payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income and have their remaining debt forgiven without taxation after 20 years. The budget also adjusts the IBR programs to prevent debts forgiveness for high-income borrowers who can afford to pay their loans.
  • Requests funding for the College Opportunity and Graduation Bonuses.  The budget proposes establishing College Opportunity and Graduation Bonuses, which would reward schools that enroll and graduate low-income students on time. Both TICAS and New America note that, unless this proposal is thoughtfully designed, it could incentivize schools to lower their academic standards in order to make it easier for Pell students to graduate. Further, as this proposal is one of several different efforts to reward colleges that provide affordable, quality educations, it is unclear how its goals and formulas would interact with those of initiatives like the Postsecondary Education Ratings System.

The UW’s Federal Relations blog notes that the budget also proposes $56 billion for an “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative,” which “aims to effectively replace the remaining FY2015 sequestration cuts for nondefense discretionary programs – the programs we care about the most.” Please stay tuned to their blog for more information and updates.

On Thursday, The Equity Line, a blog by The Education Trust, posted a critique of Pay It Forward (PIF) that discusses some of PIF’s major flaws. As a reminder, under PIF, instead of paying tuition and fees upfront, students would pay back a certain percent of their adjusted gross income for 25 years. For more information about PIF and how its supporters have applied PIF to the UW, please see the full OPB brief.

The Equity Line’s blog post highlights that although PIF is marketed as a “debt-free” way to pay for college, it is actually just another student loan program:

  • It is estimated (by the author and the UW) that many students would pay more under PIF than they currently do to pay back student loans.
  • Students with significant need – who currently receive federal, state, and institutional grants to cover tuition and fees – may have their grants (which do not need to be paid back) replaced with loans (which do).
  • Students would not be able to cover these other education costs with federal or state need-based grants because by removing the cost of tuition and fees from a student’s budget, that student’s level of calculated need would fall as would their eligibility for federal and state need programs. Thus, students would have to take out more loans (or find a way to pay upfront) for these expenses.

As the author notes, rather than “Pay It Forward,” it’s really “Pay It Yourself and Pay More Than Ever.

As you may have heard, President Obama recently announced his “Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students” initiative, which aims to help more low-income and underrepresented minority students attend and complete college. On January 16th, the White House hosted a summit of the more than 100 colleges, universities, nonprofits, and foundations that made commitments to increase college opportunity. The Chronicle provides a detailed, sortable list of these commitments.

News coverage of the summit and the initiative includes the following:

After years of budget cuts, most higher education lobbyists across the country expect flat or slightly increased funding for higher education during upcoming state legislative sessions. According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, three-quarters of states increased spending on higher education by more than 3 percent in the current fiscal year. Despite these efforts, funding for public colleges and universities is still well below 2008 funding levels. Many experts believe that this may be the new normal—with continued economic uncertainty and many other programs, such as Medicaid, K-12 education, or state pensions, competing for the state’s resources, higher education may have to make do with less.

For those states that are increasing funding for higher education, the money is often coming with more strings attached. About 20 states have implemented performance-based funding, which ties state dollars to the accomplishment of certain goals, such as an increased graduation rate, lower student debt, or more STEM majors. Some states, including Washington, are also limiting tuition increases or requiring universities to divert more money to financial aid. While many higher education administrators welcome the chance to improve institutional efficiency and student outcomes, they are also wary of legislators setting unrealistic goals or failing to appreciate the complexity of their institutions.

Washington seems to be following the national trend, both in the expectation of flat or moderately increased funding in the coming session and in the likely adoption of performance-based funding. Governor Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget includes some modest funding for select UW initiatives, but no across-the-board increase. The public institution-led Technical Incentive Funding Model Task Force is exploring ways to implement performance-based funding in Washington. To read more about either of these, check out our blog post on Governor Inslee’s supplemental budget and the Technical Incentive Funding website. To learn more about state budgets and performance funding nationally, check out this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and this piece in Inside Higher Ed.

Now that news sources are back from their holiday hiatus, we have a couple of noteworthy stories to bring you.  Both articles highlight the continuing trend toward greater accountability.

Florida’s new rules linking tenure with student success are upheld:  Last week in Florida, a judge upheld new rules by the State Department of Education that require tenure decisions—known in Florida as “continuing contracts”—to be contingent upon professors’ performance on certain student success criteria. The judge also upheld a new requirement that faculty must work for five years, rather than three, before being eligible for the contracts. The United Faculty of Florida had contested that the new rules were beyond the scope of the department’s powers, but the judge rejected that claim.

Senators propose penalties for colleges with high student-loan default rates:  On Thursday, three Democratic senators introduced a bill dubbed “the Protect Student Borrowers Act of 2013,” which would impose a fine on colleges with high student-loan default rates and federal student-aid enrollment rates of at least 25 percent. Penalties would be on a sliding scale. On the low end, colleges with default rates of 15 to 20 percent would incur a fee equal to 5 percent of the total value of loans issued to their students in default. On the high end, schools with default rates of 30 percent or more would incur a 20 percent penalty.  The Education Department currently cuts off federal funds for institutions with high default rates, but the senators argue it punishes only “the most extravagant, outrageous schools.” The Chronicle writes, “The proposed legislation would hit for-profit institutions the hardest, as their graduates have the highest default rates, on average.”

Consumer advocates applauded the Department of Education’s second—and substantially more stringent—set of draft regulations for the “gainful employment” rule, released on Friday. They claim the metrics, which apply to vocational programs at for-profit institutions and community colleges, will better measure the program’s loan default and repayment rates. Programs that do not meet the Department of Education’s standards under the gainful employment rule will lose federal student aid eligibility.  

The Department of Education’s initial regulatory language, released in September, included two measures of debt-to-earnings ratios for graduates of vocational programs. However, these measures did not require the institutions to report debt-to-earnings ratios for students who dropped out of the program without earning a degree—an oversight that critics of for-profits believed would be misleading.

The new regulations would include a loan default ratio metric, as well as a measure of repayment rates across an academic program’s “portfolio” of loans. The law would require that the total principal balance of loans borrowed for an academic program is less at the end of the year than it was at the beginning. The measure will therefore capture repayment rates both for students who earn a credential and those who do not.

For-profit supporters are critical of the new language, saying their ideas and suggestions for crafting a metric for gainful employment were not taken into account. They claim that the new rules, if implemented, could deny needy students access to vocational programs that may help them get better jobs. Critics of for-profits counter that the rules will help students make more informed decisions about the likelihood that they will be able to repay their loans, as well as ensure that institutions that receive federal aid dollars are offering high-quality degrees.

While the gainful employment rule applies only to vocational programs at for-profit institutions and community colleges, President Obama’s proposed ratings system, which would tie federal financial aid funds to performance metrics, applies to all institutions that receive federal dollars. If implemented, the ratings system would hold all institutions accountable to similar standards—a prospect that worries many administrators who claim they cannot control their students’ career success or the labor market.

The second round of negotiations on the gainful employment rule begins this week. As always, we will keep you posted on their progress.

As of last Thursday, select California community colleges can charge differential tuition for their most popular extension courses. California’s Governor Jerry Brown supported the bill as an “experiment” that would give a limited number of colleges some flexibility to offer more sections of their most popular courses. The system, which has suffered many years of deep budget cuts, currently turns away as many as 600,000 students because colleges cannot afford to offer enough courses to accommodate them.

The new California law allows six community colleges to charge students for the “actual” cost of the courses, including instruction, equipment, and supplies, rather than the heavily subsidized $46 per credit that they currently assess. The rates are expected to be more than three times higher than the current rate for residents. In order to participate in the program, the colleges must be over-enrolled and the new sections they offer cannot replace the original class. The original class must maintain the current tuition rates, but if the course is full, new sections of the course can be more expensive. The law also requires that a third of the revenue gained from the extension courses be returned back to financial aid.

Critics of the program believe that the law is a first step towards eroding California’s strong commitment to affordable and accessible community colleges. They argue that this program is merely a “toll road for the economically privileged” that will put low-income students at a severe disadvantage. Supporters counter that the program, at the very least, expands access to popular courses and, at best, might even help low-income students because of the 33 percent return-to-aid requirement.

To read more about the program, check out this Inside Higher Ed Article or read the law itself.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to be in favor of upholding a Michigan referendum, known as Proposition 2, which banned the use of affirmative action in the state’s public colleges and universities. The case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, is not about whether it is permissible for public colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions, but whether it is legal for voters to bar such consideration. For background information about this case, please see our previous post.

Tuesday’s arguments focused primarily on a piece of the Equal Protection Clause, known as the “political process doctrine,” which states that political processes cannot be altered in a way that puts minorities at a disadvantage. Opponents of Proposition 2, contend that, under the measure, minority groups who want to reinstate affirmative action must launch a difficult and expensive campaign to re-amend the state constitution, whereas Michigan citizens seeking changes to other university admissions policies are free to simply lobby university regents. This, they argue, places an unfair and disadvantageous burden on minorities.

Swing vote, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, expressed doubts about whether Proposition 2 truly violates the political process doctrine and only two liberal members of the court voiced major criticisms of the Michigan measure. Thus, with Justice Elena Kagan recused from the case, the numbers point toward the court upholding Proposition 2. Such a decision would effectively preserve similar bans adopted by voters in Arizona, California, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Washington; by lawmakers in New Hampshire; and by the public university governing board in Florida. In addition, it could theoretically embolden campaigns for similar ballot measures
elsewhere.

While it seems clear the Justices will rule in favor of Michigan, it is less clear whether the Justices are interested in reversing the political process doctrine, which dates back more than 40 years. In 1982, for example, the justices ruled against a Washington referendum that attempted to prevent Seattle from using a local busing program to desegregate schools. NPR reports that Michigan Solicitor General, John Bursch, “urged the Supreme Court to reverse the Seattle decision and others like it, if necessary.”

We’ll post updates as more information becomes available.

In anticipation of last Monday’s “Pay It Forward” working conference in Philadelphia, national education groups and nonprofit organizations released a joint statement opposing the proposal. The joint statement is available here. For more information about PIF, please review our post about Oregon legislation requiring “consideration” of a “Pay It Forward, Pay Back” pilot. A comprehensive brief about the proposal’s UW application is available here.

Last week, the College Board released its 2013 Report on College and Career Readiness, which found that the percentage of students who are unprepared for college-level work has remained essentially unchanged for the past five years. According to the College Board, only 43 percent of graduating seniors in 2013 had achieved their “SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark,” defined as scoring a 1550 or above on the SAT. While there have been some achievements—more minority students are taking the test, and both African-American and Hispanic students are scoring higher—scores are not improving on the whole.

In order to improve students’ college readiness, College Board president David Coleman believes the College Board must partner with schools to implement the Common Core, a set of standardized guidelines detailing what students should learn in each grade. He believes this will help students be better prepared both to take the SAT and to perform at the college level. In addition, the College Board is considering making changes to the SAT. According to a Kaplan Test Prep survey, more than 72 percent of college admissions officers think the SAT should change in order to be better aligned with high school curricula, correct perceived socioeconomic and cultural biases, and make the writing section more relevant. Coleman has promised to address these concerns with an overhaul of the SAT in 2015, which will include a stronger emphasis on analysis, a revamped writing section, and more curriculum-based questions.

As the College Board makes changes to the SAT, the test is becoming ever more similar to the ACT—its biggest competitor—which overtook the SAT in market share for the first time last year, according to the NY Times.  The ACT, which is known for more straightforward questions, emphasizing grammar and mechanics over vocabulary, and testing curriculum-based content, has also made some changes in recent years. The test is now available in a computer-based format and features some free response questions in which students carry out virtual experiments and detail their observations. Experts believe the SAT will likely move towards a computer-based delivery system with its revamp in 2015, and many hope the writing section will be optional, as it is on the ACT.

To read more about the coming changes to the SAT, check out this New York Times article. To read the College Board’s report, please click here.

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