Federal Policy Proposals to Increase College Access and Success

January 27, 2015

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Anyone following federal higher education policy barely had a breather for the holidays with the release of the College Ratings Framework in late December, the introduction of the FAST Act on the first day of Congress, and President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal later that same week. Let’s examine each of them below.

College Ratings Framework
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) proposed ratings system lays out a framework for guiding students through the important decision making process of where to attend college. ED is asking for responses to the framework by February 17, 2015. The framework retains the President’s initially proposed categories of access, affordability, and outcomes, which are the three areas students should consider. For each of these categories, the measures within will be presented as “high-performing, low-performing, and those falling in the middle.” The majority of institutions will fall in the middle with small bands landing in the high- and low-performing sections. To learn more about the specific measures, visit NCAN’s Dec. 19 blog post.

The Department of Education’s initial approach focuses on helping students to make the crucial decision of where to attend college. Most students will make this decision once, or maybe twice, in their lifetimes. If the market mechanisms of “voting with their feet” are to work in higher education, students must be well-informed about the institutions to which they are applying to reduce transfers and increase completion. The federal government is in the best position to gather this data together, from any and all sources possible, to help them make this decision. The consumer focus of this proposal is the right one, with the longer term accountability metrics to come later.

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act on the first day of the 114th Congress. The bill, co-sponsored by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Burr (R-NC), John Isakson (R-GA), and Angus King (I-ME) will reduce the FAFSA form to two questions, use prior prior year tax data for that form, allow students to use Pell Grants year-round, and streamline federal financial aid programs. This bill was based in part on testimony NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook provided to the Senate in the fall of 2013. Drastically reducing the number of questions on the FAFSA form, using the second prior tax-year information to allow for easier form completion, and providing a year-round Pell Grant opportunity will increase access to financial aid for the students our members serve. Learn more from NCAN’s Jan. 8  blog post.

America’s College Promise
In the biggest surprise of all, President Obama announced a new proposal to provide free community college tuition to all students as part of his lead up to the State of the Union. Under this plan, the federal government would fund 75% of community college tuition for qualifying students (2.5 GPA) in qualifying programs (transferable credits) if states are willing to fund the other 25%. At the initial announcement, it was unclear how this program would interact with the Pell Grant and other need-based aid. However, the White House has now confirmed that this program will be a first-dollar program, meaning (presumably) that the Pell Grant could be “stacked” on top of the free tuition and used for books and living expenses. There are still many remaining questions about the program and its consequences for equity  in higher education to be addressed. However, the Obama administration is sending a clear message to students that postsecondary education is both an option and an expectation and to states that they must contribute to creating the public good of higher education.

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