Office of Planning and Budgeting

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.

Aligning the Means and the Ends: How to Improve Federal Student Aid and Increase College Access and Success” is the Institute for College Access & Success’s (TICAS) white paper for the Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (see our recent post for more information). Some of the report’s suggestions have been echoed in other white papers and publications, such as simplifying the federal financial aid application process, making the Pell program a mandatory federal budget item, and fostering more understandable and comparable reporting of college costs. The paper’s others recommendations include:

  • Holding colleges accountable not only to the percentage of student borrowers who default on loans (represented by the currently-used cohort default rates), but also to the percentage of students who take out loans in the first place. TICAS proposes denying federal aid to colleges that score below a certain threshold on a combined index of the two measures. The group also recommends increasing federal aid to colleges scoring above a certain threshold. The amount of additional aid would be determined by how much Pell funding their students receive.
  • Shoring up the Pell Grant. TICAS proposes doubling the maximum Pell grant award, to about $11,000 a year, and extending the eligibility timeframe from 6 years to 7.5.
  • Creating a single federal student loan with no fees and a fixed interest rate. The rate would be low while students are in school and would rise, by a fixed amount with a cap, when they leave.
  • Streamlining repayment plans, replacing multiple options for income-based plans with only one. Delinquent borrowers would automatically be placed in the income-based plan; but, a non-income-based option would be available to other borrowers. TICAS wants to leave borrowers with a choice, but argues they need real counseling—not just disclosure—to help them decide.
  • Eliminating higher education tax benefits and sending the savings to Pell Grants and monetary incentives for states and colleges.  If tax benefits are preserved, the group recommends restructuring them into an upgraded American Opportunity Tax Credit aimed at helping low- and moderate-income students.

TICAS’ paper outlines a few ways the government could fund these proposals in addition to potentially eliminating higher ed tax benefits.  As The Chronicle nicely summarized, those options include, “limiting the benefit of itemized tax deductions, taxing private equity and hedge-fund income like other income, and removing or reforming tax-exempt bonds for private nonprofit colleges.”

Last week, the National Commission of Higher Education published an open letter calling on “every college and university president and chancellor to make retention and completion a critical campus priority” and asserting that such efforts are “an economic and moral imperative.” Six higher-ed associations assembled the Commission in 2011 at President Obama’s request. The 18 college presidents that form the Commission’s membership come from every sector, except for-profits, and were tasked with investigating strategies that individual schools can use to improve graduation rates.

The NY Times quotes Dr. E. Gordon Gee, chairman of the Commission, as saying, “We concentrate most on the admissions side of things, getting the bodies in, and there’s no one in charge of seeing that they get through and graduate.”  Although enrollment rates are strong, nearly half of all college students nationwide fail to earn a degree within six years (79 percent of
entering freshman graduate from the UW within six years).

Completion efforts should take into consideration the changing face of higher ed: first-generation, mid-career, part-time, and veteran students are an ever-increasing share of the nation’s student body. The report notes that “adult learners are far less likely than their traditional-age peers to complete their degrees” and will need flexible schedules, more financial assistance, and targeted student services in order to succeed.

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • Narrowing course options so that students prioritize completion;
  • Putting someone in charge of overseeing completion efforts; and
  • Giving credit for previous learning.

The Commission asks colleges to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions and to eschew inflating their graduation rates by admitting only the best-prepared, lowest-risk students and/or by making it easier for students to pass.

The report acknowledges, however, that colleges need assistance in these completion endeavors, saying, “Disinvestment in higher education is terribly damaging and undermines efforts to expand and enhance academic and support services for students.”

The Commission believes the report will trigger a sense of urgency among leaders (academic or otherwise) and, hopefully, meaningful action.

Christy Gullion, Director of Federal Relations, recently provided an update on the sequester–the large, automatic federal spending cuts originally scheduled to take effect January 1st of this year, but delayed until March 1st thanks to a last-minute, bipartisan deal.

For background information, please see our most recent post on the topic as well as the brief put out jointly by the UW offices of Federal Relations, Planning & Budgeting, and Research.

Two years ago at the annual Council of Independent Colleges, a group of private-college presidents advocated for limiting the amount of financial aid awarded on criteria other than need—usually referred to as “merit-based” financial aid. Although the presidents received an enthusiastic response from the Council, little action followed. However, last Saturday at this year’s Council meeting, the conversation was revisited and two encouraging developments suggest progress may be more conceivable this time.

First, the presidents unveiled a draft “statement of principle,” which they hope will unite colleagues who believe that meeting financial need should be the highest priority of aid policies. Titled “High Tuition/High Discount Has No Future,” the statement articulates that the merit-aid/tuition discounting model is unsustainable and those signing their support acknowledge they’ve contributed to the problem. The statement cites a 2009 study that found “the increased use of merit aid is associated with a decrease in enrollment of low-income and minority students, particularly at more selective institutions.”

Second, David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, revealed information from preliminary conversations with U.S. Justice Department officials regarding ways in which groups of presidents could discuss their tuition and/or financial aid policies without penalty and, hopefully, reach collective agreements to make college more affordable. This is significant as the Overlap Group, a set of elite universities that joined forces on admissions and financial-aid decisions for several years, faced antitrust charges by the federal government in 1991. The federal case effectively ended any meaningful collaboration on such topics, keeping schools in the dark about each other’s financial aid and admissions strategies.

“The fear, obviously, is that unilateral disarmament” in the merit-aid race won’t work, said one of the efforts’ leaders according to The Chronicle. Presidents worry that increasing need-based aid and decreasing merit aid, which is used to attract top students, will result in less robust enrollment and less prestige. But hopefully between the statement of principle, which could align presidents behind common goals, and discussions with the federal government, which could result in permissible collaboration, some progress will be made and the game of financial-aid chicken can end.

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

Christy Gullion, Director of Federal Relations, recently provided an update on the fiscal cliff–the combination of large decreases in federal spending and simultaneous increases in income taxes set to take effect January 1st. For background information, please see the brief put out jointly by the UW offices of Federal Relations, Planning & Budgeting, and Research.

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.

Last Wednesday, eight Democratic senators sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) asking Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, to investigate strategies that some for-profit colleges allegedly use to falsely lower their cohort default rates (CDRs)—the rate at which student borrowers default on federal loans. Institutions with high CDRs can face penalties including a loss of eligibility for federal student aid programs.

The letter cites a recent Senate Committee report, which presents evidence that for-profits routinely use two tactics
in particular to manipulate CDRs:

  1. “Encouraging or even harassing borrowers” into forbearances or deferments, which can delay default until after the
    period for which CDRs are typically reported; and
  2. Manipulating campus and program categorizations in a way that makes their default rates artificially low.

The senators argue that “for-profit schools should not be able to use administrative smoke and mirrors to circumvent regulations that protect students and taxpayers, and the department should take action to prevent these tactics.” Some for-profits have admitted to using such strategies to “manage” their CDRs, but they deny that doing so conflicts with their students’ best interests.

For-profits consistently average higher default rates than all other higher education sectors.  Of the students who began repaying loans in 2009, 22.7 percent of students at for-profits defaulted within three years, while only 11 percent of public students defaulted in that timeframe, and only 7.5 percent of private nonprofit students. In contrast, the UW’s three-year CDR was an impressively low 3.1

Comparing for-profits’ two-year CDRs with newly-reported three-year CDRs reveals a major, and potentially damning, discrepancy. Fifty percent more students from for profits’ defaulted in the three-year timeframe than in the two-year timeframe. The senators say this “raises serious questions about how widespread the use of such tactics may be across the sector.”

ED has yet to respond to the senators’ letter.

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