Office of Planning and Budgeting

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.

(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.

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.

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.

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:

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