Office of Planning and Budgeting

(This piece was originally posted on 07/11/2013, however it was lost due to technical issues and is therefore re-posted here.)

Last week, the Oregon legislature passed a bill that, if signed by the governor, will implement a pilot program to study the effects and feasibility of substituting upfront tuition payments with income-based, post-graduation payments. For 24 years after graduating, four-year college students would pay back 3 percent of their income and community college students would pay back 1.5 percent. Students who do not graduate would pay back a smaller percent determined by how long they were in school.

If, after several years of study, Oregon decides to adopt a plan (or some form of it), it would signify a major shift in the funding paradigm for public institutions. But that’s a big IF. The plan has received considerable criticism due to a multitude of unanswered questions that could pose significant logistical barriers. For example:

  • How would institutions and/or the state pay for the plan’s implementation (i.e. the several years of foregone tuition revenue between when a student enters school and when they graduate and start earning pay)?
  • How would the state efficiently collect accurate income data on students who move out-of-state?
  • How would the state go about collecting and enforcing payments?
  • How would the plan account for and apply to part-time students, transfer students, mid-career students, and other non-traditional students?
  • How would the plan work with federal and state financial aid programs? Would low-income students be accommodated so as to avoid creating barriers to entry?
  • How does one pilot a 24-year repayment program in just 2 or 3 years?

Even if Oregon’s higher education commission, which is tasked with implementing the pilot program, can find viable answers to those questions, the plan still has a number of possible (if not likely) negative consequences. For instance, the plan may:

  • Magnify the public’s view of higher education as a private good (only benefiting the individual) rather than a public good (benefits for many) which, in turn, could spur the continuing and problematic trend of replacing state dollars with tuition revenue;
  • Make institutions even more vulnerable to economic variations and recessions as their revenue would be tied to graduates’ earning and unemployment rates; and
  • Create social and economic imbalance between Oregon and other states since students who expect to earn less—e.g. social science and humanities majors—would be incentivized to go to Oregon, and students expecting to earn more—e.g. engineering and medical students—would likely go elsewhere.

Granted, the idea of basing college payments on graduates’ income is not a new one. Some federal student loans are eligible for income-based repayment and a program similar to Oregon’s already exists in Australia. However, Australia’s version is administered at the federal level, meaning many problems inherent in Oregon’s plan (tracking students who move around the country, imbalance between states, etc.) are avoided.

The Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal think tank in Seattle, proposed a version of the plan for Washington in October 2012; but, unlike Oregon’s version, it has yet to go anywhere.  We’ll keep you posted.

According to an annual survey released on Monday by the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs (NASSGAP), the amount of state dollars going toward financial aid remained relatively stable between 2010-11 and 2011-12. In 2011-12, states awarded about $11.1 billion in state-based financial aid, a slight increase (0.7 percent) over the $11.0 billion awarded in 2010-11. That growth has not kept pace with rising enrollments or the overall increase in students’ financial need; however, it’s encouraging to see growth of any size given that general state appropriations for higher education fell by 7 percent during that same time period.

The state-by-state data show that Washington, New Jersey, New York and California gave out the most need-based aid on a per-student basis. Oregon more than doubled the amount it spent on need-based grants, to nearly $44-million, and Washington increased its need-based grants by 26 percent. However, 23 states cut need-based aid from 2010 to 2011 and four states reported no need based aid programs at all.

What’s most intriguing, in my opinion, is that even though states collectively put only slightly more money toward their financial aid programs, they shifted a larger portion of those aid dollars toward need-based aid and grant aid (see the tables below). This finding suggests that states are attempting to maintain access in the face of rising tuition rates and to reduce the amount of debt their students accumulate.

Of the $11.1 billion in total state-awarded student aid:

  • $9.4 billion (84%) was grant aid—up 1.7% from 2010-11; and
  • $1.7 billion (16%) was non-grant aid (loans, work-study, tuition waivers, etc.)—down 4.2% from the previous year.

Of the $9.4 billion in state-awarded grant aid:

  • $7.0 billion (74%) was need-based—up 6.3% from last year; and
  • $2.4 billion (26%) was non-need-based—down 9.4%.

Of the $10.1 billion in state-awarded undergraduate aid (both grants and non-grants):

  • $4.7 billion (47%) was exclusively need-based—up 6.0%;
  • $2.0 billion (20%) was awarded on a mix of need and merit criteria—up 1.6% and surpassing, for the first time ever, aid awarded solely on merit;
  • $1.9 billion (19%) was exclusively merit-based—down 1.3%; and
  • $1.4 billion (14%) was special purpose awards and uncategorized aid— a 3.0% drop.
Change in Total State-Awarded Student Aid
Percent change from 2010-11 to 2011-12      
Type of Student Aid Dollar amount Portion of total
Grant aid 1.7% 0.8%
Non-grant aid -4.2% -0.8%
Total aid 0.7%  
     
Change in State-Awarded Grant Aid
Percent change from 2010-11 to 2011-12      
Type of Grant Aid Dollar amount Portion of total
Need-based 6.3% 3.0%
Non-need-based -9.4% -3.0%
Total grant aid 1.7%  
     
Change in State-Awarded Undergraduate Aid
Percent change from 2010-11 to 2011-12      
Type of Undergrad Aid Dollar amount Portion of total
Exclusively need-based 6.0% 2.7%
Mixed need & merit-based 8.5% 1.6%
Exclusively merit-based -6.5% -1.3%
Uncategorized & other -17.4% -3.0%
Total undergraduate aid 0.0%  

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.

Although there are many types of financial aid, it is typically awarded on the basis of either need or merit. Need-based aid is largely a result of a federal calculation and is somewhat predictable:  to ensure access, students with more financial need receive more financial aid of various forms. And, although there is no universal definition of the merit aid, it traditionally describes scholarship money used to attract top academic achievers. However, Kevin Carey, director of education policy at the New America Foundation, asserts in a recent commentary for The Chronicle that a significant portion of merit aid is actually used to attract “academically marginal students with wealthy parents.”

Carey cites evidence of this trend. A 2011 U.S. Department of Education study found that of the full-time students at four-year institutions who received “merit” aid in 2007-08, almost 20 percent had entered college with a combined SAT score of less than 700 and 45 percent had scored below 1000 (out of a possible 1600). The study also shows that although the percentage of private college students receiving need-based aid showed a slight decline from 1995 to 2007 (going from 43 to 42 percent), the proportion receiving “merit” aid nearly doubled during that time span (from 24 to 44 percent).   At public universities, the percentage of students getting need-based aid increased from 13 to 16 percent, but the growth in merit aid outpaced it, going from 8 to 18 percent.  Thankfully, as discussed in a previous post, a group of private-college presidents has been calling on its peers to limit the amount of financial aid awarded on criteria other than need.

The National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs’ (NASSGAP) Annual Survey Report on State-Sponsored Student Financial Aid and Brookings’ Beyond Need and Merit: Strengthening State Grant Programs provide corroborating evidence that merit-aid is becoming more prevalent, while need-based aid is diminishing.  However, neither discusses the academic strength of the students receiving merit aid.

So why is this happening?  If a college offers good scholarships and financial aid packages to an affluent family, it may incentivize them to choose that school.  Even though that family’s son or daughter may be a low academic achiever who has a decent chance of dropping out, it is still lucrative for the school to attract those students.  Noel-Levitz, a higher ed consulting firm, revealed that one of its client colleges was able to generate over $10,000 more per low-achieving student than they could per top-achieving student.

Carey hopes that as taxpayers, the news media, and affiliates of universities become aware of this trend, their vigilance will keep institutions in check.

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.”

The Gates Foundation has joined the nation’s financial aid conversation and is attempting to rethink how policies and practices can not only help maintain access (in the face of flagging state support and rising tuition prices), but also help students succeed. In September of last year, the Gates Foundation launched its Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project, which provided 16 organizations with funding to develop and publish innovative financial aid strategies aimed at encouraging college completion. One of the 16 organizations, the New America Foundation, recently released its white paper, which recommends bolstering Pell Grants, limiting student loan options, and removing higher ed tax benefits.

To improve “both the effectiveness and sustainability of Pell Grants,” the New America Foundation recommends:

  • Making the Pell program a mandatory federal budget item;
  • Increasing the maximum grant faster than is currently scheduled while restoring summer grant support;
  • Limiting Pell eligibility to 125 percent of a program’s length;
  • Providing additional federal funding to public and private-nonprofit colleges that have a large proportion of low-income students and high graduation rates; and
  • Requiring four-year colleges that enroll a small percentage of low-income students and charge more than $10,000 per year (after financial aid) to match some of the Pell dollars they receive with need-based aid from institutional funds.

The plan, which is intended to be “budget neutral,” recommends that the Pell Grant changes be funded by:

  • Eliminating the American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning tuition tax credits, tax-advantaged savings plans for education, and the student loan interest deduction;
  • Ending the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program; and
  • Encouraging borrowers to refinance old student loans into direct lending.

The authors also recommend consolidating federal student loan programs into a single, “enhanced” Stafford Loan sys­tem as a means of simplifying the student loan system and reducing the potential for default. This would involve:

  • Automatically enrolling all federal student loan borrowers in income-based repayment plans;
  • Eliminating subsidized undergraduate loans;
  • Setting student loan interest rates via a fixed formula that adjusts to market conditions;
  • Ending the Grad PLUS and Parent PLUS loan programs;
  • Increasing borrowing limits slightly to $40,000 total for undergrads and $25,500 per year for grads; and
  • Limiting federal student loan eligibility to 150 percent of a program’s length.

Although some (if not many) of these ideas are politically unpopular, the authors argue that their recommendations must be implemented together in order to be effective. However, it seems more likely that Congress will cherry-pick specific suggestions to pursue or perhaps ignore the report’s policy proposals altogether. The Gates Foundation hopes their project will, at the very least, stimulate discussion about reforming financial aid.

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

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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