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
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.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released its annual update on federal student loan cohort default rates (CDRs), which measure the frequency with which student borrowers at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, etc.) default on their federal loans. Although both national and UW CDRs rose, the UW’s rates remain well below those of the nation.
As ED is in its second year of switching to the more accurate three-year CDR measure, this year’s report includes both the FY 2011 two-year and the FY 2010 three-year CDRs. These rates represent the percentage of student borrowers who failed to make loan payments for 270 days within two or three years, respectively, of leaving school.
The Department provides breakdowns of its data by institution type, state and school. Here are some key findings:
FY 2010 three-year CDR:
- The national three-year CDR increased from 13.4 to 14.7 percent overall—public institutions increased from 11.0 to 13.0 percent, private nonprofits increased from 7.5 to 8.2 percent, but for-profits’ whopping 22.7 percent rate decreased slightly to 21.8 percent.
- The UW’s three-year CDR increased slightly from 3.1 to 3.9 percent, but this is still nearly 11 percentage points below the national average.
FY 2011 two-year CDR:
- The national two-year CDR increased from 9.1 to 10.0 percent overall—public institutions increased from 8.3 to 9.6 percent, for-profits increased from 12.9 to 13.6 percent, but private nonprofits held steady at 5.2 percent.
- The UW’s two-year CDR increased from 2.1 to 3.2 percent, but this is still nearly 7 percentage points below the national average.
While this is good news, many students still struggle to afford ever-increasing tuition fees and/or to repay their student loans. The UW reaches out to our former students at risk of default on their Stafford Loans and helps identify federal repayment options that could benefit them. Former UW students who are in default or experiencing difficulties repaying their loans can contact the Office of Student Financial Aid for assistance (email@example.com, 206-543-6101). Students can also visit studentloans.gov to explore their repayment options.
On Friday, the Obama administration gave some clarity to the Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, as the decision had not provided a direct answer about the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education. Instead, the ruling had underscored the necessity of “strict scrutiny”—a term that sparked concern and confusion among some college officials. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the Education and Justice Departments clarified:
An individual student’s race can be considered as one of several factors in higher education admissions as long as the admissions program meets the well-established ‘strict scrutiny’ standard; specifically, the college or university must demonstrate that considering the race of individual applicants in its admissions program is narrowly tailored to meet the compelling interest in diversity, including that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.
In other words, colleges can continue considering race in admissions decisions as long as race-neutral alternatives would not achieve “sufficient diversity,” as Justice Kennedy put it in the case’s majority decision. Determining what constitutes “sufficient” diversity is where much of the remaining ambiguity lies. However, in their letter, the Departments pledged to provide “technical assistance” to institutions as they interpret the ruling and asserted that previously-provided guidance on affirmative action still holds true.
As Inside Higher Ed reported, legal experts believe the court’s “strict scrutiny” requirement will make it difficult for UT and many other institutions to successfully defend their use of race in admissions. However, the Obama administration seemed to encourage colleges to maintain their diversity efforts. “The Departments of Education and Justice stand ready to support colleges and universities in pursuing a racially and ethnically diverse student body in a lawful manner,” the letter stated.
For more information, see the Departments’ Q&A document and the article by Inside Higher Ed, and stay tuned to our blog for updates.
On Monday, the U.S. Education Department (ED) began formal negotiationson the draft language of a proposed new “gainful employment” rule. The rule, originally published in 2011, was designed to enforce a requirement of the Higher Education Act that states career education programs—non-degree programs at all colleges and most degree programs at for-profit colleges—must “prepare students for gainful employment” in order to participate in federal student aid programs. The rule was meant to discourage these programs from misusing federal aid dollars and leaving students with debts burdens they are unable to repay. However, in 2012 a federal judge rejected major provisions of the rule, requiring that ED rethink its strategy.
Here’s a summary of the changes:
- The proposed rule applies to programs with as few as 10 students, whereas the old rule counted only career-focused programs with 30 or more students. Because of this change, ED estimates that the new rule could cover 11,359 programs at for-profit and nonprofit colleges—nearly twice as many as the old rule covered—and that 974 of those programs (9 percent) could fail to meet the proposed standards.
- The draft regulation omits loan-repayment as a criterion for federal student aid eligibility. The old rule severed federal aid to programs where too few students were repaying their loans or where graduates’ debt-to-earnings and debt-to-discretionary-income ratios were too high. The new rule removes the loan repayment standards, which the courts deemed “arbitrary and capricious,” and relies only on the latter two measures.
- Debt-to-earnings calculations would be based only on students who receive federal aid, rather than students who complete the program. The old calculations were based on all students who completed the program, whereas the proposed calculations are based on any students who receive federal student loans and Pell Grants, regardless of whether they complete the program. As the rule is designed to ensure that federal aid is used effectively, this seems a more appropriate approach.
- Schools would have fewer chances to improve their performance before losing federal aid eligibility. Under the previous rule, programs that failed the measures in 3 out of any 4 years would be ineligible for federal student aid. However, the new rule only lets programs fail in 2 out of any 3 years before they lose eligibility.
For details, see a comparison of the two versions prepared by the Education Department. Please continue to follow our blog as well as the Federal Relations blog for updates on this topic.
Last week, President Obama toured several colleges and universities promoting his plans to make college more accessible and affordable for “middle class” students. As he noted during several stops, achieving a higher education remains one of the most critical means by which citizens achieve job security and financial stability.
For more detailed information about the central themes of the President’s plans, as well as information about which components require action from Congress, please review a brief on the topic, as well as a blog from Federal Relations. Read more about the plans here and here.
Thursday night, time ran out for Congress to reach a deal to keep federally subsidized student loan interest rates from doubling. The Senate adjourned for its Fourth of July recess without voting on a plan; thus, the interest rates on new federally subsidized loans will double to 6.8 percent on Monday July 1st (the same rate as unsubsidized federal student loans).
It is possible, however, that students won’t end up paying the increased rates. There has been a push from some legislators to enact a one-year fix that would temporarily adjust/lower the interest rates after the fact. As the lender of the student loans, it is within the federal government’s power to apply such a solution retroactively.
The increase was originally scheduled to occur a year ago. But, thanks to an election-year alliance of student advocates and the Obama administration, the rate increase was delayed by a year.
For more information, see the Inside Higher Ed article and please stay tuned to the Federal Relations website for updates.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that Fisher v. University of Texas (UT), the case on UT Austin’s race-conscious admissions policy, be sent back to an appeals court for further scrutiny. The case stemmed from a lawsuit by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant to the university who claimed she was unfairly rejected due to UT Austin’s affirmative action admissions program. For more background on this case, please see our previous two posts, found here and here.
The court’s 7-to-1 decision did not provide a direct answer about the constitutionality of UT Austin’s admissions practices. Instead, it ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reconsider the case on the grounds that the appeals court had failed to apply “strict scrutiny” (a rigorous standard requiring that both an important goal and a close fit between means and ends be identified) in its review of the case and subsequent ruling in favor of UT. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only dissenting voice; she argued that the appeals court was right to support UT’s policies.
According to the NY Times, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority that courts reviewing affirmative action programs must, “verify that it is necessary for a university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity.” This necessitates, he said, “a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling did not displace its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which found educational diversity to be of sufficient importance to overcome the government’s standard ban on racial consideration. However, as Inside Higher Ed reports, legal experts believe the court’s demanding “strict scrutiny” requirements will make it difficult for UT and many other institutions to successfully defend their use of race in admissions.
The debates surrounding Fisher v. UT and affirmative action in higher education as a whole are far from over. Many expect the Texas case to return to the Supreme Court after a new review by the appeals court. We will keep you posted with any updates.
Of the nearly 900 schools that received federal money for research and development (R&D) in FY 2011, the UW ranks first among public institutions and second overall in terms of federal research funding. According to a study by the National Science Foundation (NSF), approximately 20 percent of all federal R&D support went to just 10 universities. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed those universities, Table 1 summarizes their findings.
Johns Hopkins University, a private institution, topped the list with nearly $1.9 billion—more than doubling what any other university received that year. The majority of Johns Hopkins’ federal funding came from the Dept. of Defense and NASA. The university also brought in billions via fundraising efforts.
The UW came in second with almost $950 million in federal R&D funding—the most of any public school. The majority of the UW’s money came from the Dept. of Health and Human Services; however, the University was the top beneficiary of NSF funding, receiving more than $145 million in 2011.
Year after year, the same schools consistently receive the most money, said Ronda Britt, a survey statistician with the NSF. 24/7 Wall St. quotes her as saying, these universities “have big research programs that receive a lot of support year after year, and have a lot of infrastructure that helps them keep the money stable.” This holds true for the UW, which has ranked first among public schools since 1974. Having large endowments was another commonality of the top 10 schools, yet federal funding covered the bulk of R&D expenditures in all cases.
As these universities rely heavily on the federal government to support their research, many are concerned about the sweeping cuts of sequestration. The UW and other universities are preparing for a range of possible impacts. As described in our joint brief, the sequester could reduce the UW’s federal grant and contract support by an estimated $75M to $100M during FY13. The UW community is encouraged to remain cautious and conservative in spending federal awards and in planning for future federal funding.
Sequestration will take effect tonight at midnight. While the cuts will be smaller than originally mandated ($85 billion instead of $109 billion), the impact in federal FY13 will be higher since the cuts must now be applied to only seven months instead of nine. Immediate and long-term impacts on the UW and Washington State are difficult to predict. However, during the remaining months of federal FY13, we estimate that the sequester could reduce the UW’s federal grant and contract support by an estimated $75 million to $100 million and cut Build America Bonds (BABs) subsidy payments by $500K to $700K. Additionally, the UW is projected to lose about $33,000 in work study funds for 2013-14. The potential impact on Washington State includes $11.6 million less for primary and secondary education, $11.3 million less for education of children with disabilities, and 1,000 fewer children receiving Head Start services.
Please see the full brief prepared by the Offices of Federal Relations, Planning & Budgeting, and Research and be sure to visit at the UW’s Federal Relations blog for regular updates.
Many of the white papers sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project have focused on modifications to the Pell program and/or student loans and repayment (including the two I summarized previously, found here and here). However, the white paper released on Wednesday by the Center on Postsecondary and Economic Success takes a different approach. It argues that by making tax-based student aid more beneficial to low and middle-income students, the federal government could save billions of dollars, direct those savings to the Pell program and improve the financial aid system as a whole.
Current tax-based financial aid provides high-income families with much larger tax deductions, since the value of the deductions is linked to a family’s marginal tax rate. As The Chronicle notes, “a $100 tax deduction, for example, is worth early $40 to a high-income household but only $10 to a lower-earning family.” To remedy this issue and refocus the benefits of aid onto low-income families, the Center proposes increasing the refundable portion of the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). The Center also recommends eliminating nonrefundable tax credits, such as the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC), since they do not benefit households that pay no income tax (i.e. low-income families).
The table below shows the percent distribution of student aid by type and income category in 2013. As you can see, Pell Grants (in blue) primarily benefit low-income families, whereas tax-based student aid (in purple) does the opposite. Another interesting table from the Tax Policy Center can be found here.
The paper includes three alternative proposals for making tax-based aid more helpful to low-income students and simultaneously boosting college access and completion. It also discusses three options for improving performance measures used in student-aid policies.
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