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2014 May 2 - 04:05 pm

Cover Story: A Cry for Help

At AACC Convention, Educators Urged To Join Debate Over HEA Reauthorization

WASHINGTON — Belle S. Wheelan stood before a group of community college leaders from around the country and asked for their help.

The setting was an early-morning breakfast meeting at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C., not far from the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers and their aides have been busy rewriting the Higher Education Act since last summer.

While the audience of college presidents and chancellors sipped coffee and picked at their bacon and eggs, Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said a reauthorized HEA could be very hard to swallow.

It could include provisions tying the receipt of federal money to minimum completion rates. It might create new penalties for colleges with high student loan default rates. And it’s up to community college leaders to tell Congress how unpalatable measures like that are, before they become law, Wheelan said.

“If you look at the policies coming out of Washington, they are still focused on that 18-21 year old cohort, which is only 13 percent of out students,” she said. “We are trying to get the folks in Washington to understand that. Help us help the powers that be understand that. We can speak with one voice.”

“You have to be more vocal with your elected officials.”

Wheelan’s remarks underscored the reality faced by the 2,000 community college leaders who came to the AACC convention from all corners of the country. While they are toiling in the field, Washington is assuming an ever-increasing role in regulating and shaping higher education. Whether it’s the HEA, gainful employment rules or a proposed new college rating system, Washington is becoming more deeply involved in higher education policy.

So it seemed appropriate that this year’s convention, AACC’s 94th, was held in Washington, where community colleges have plenty of fans.

During the convention, for example, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. — with his wife, Jill, a community college English professor, by his side — heaped praise on the institutions.

He also announced the launch of a new $100 million job training initiative: the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium.

Made up of community colleges, businesses, labor unions and industry organizations, the new consortium will allow students to earn college credit while being paid to learn a trade. It will be administered jointly by the Education Department and the Labor Department. It is an attempt to expand apprenticeship programs to new fields like advanced manufacturing, health care and information technology and forge stronger links between colleges and employers.

“That’s a game change for a lot of people struggling to choose between going to work and going to college, when they can do both,” Biden said. “With an apprenticeship, they’re able to … earn while they learn.”

“The middle class has its best shot of growing through all of you,” he said. “You really are the heart of expanding opportunity for millions of Americans.”

But those opportunities will remain elusive for many students unless the skyrocketing cost of a college is slowed. That’s the central concern of lawmakers in charge of rewriting the HEA. The federal government spends an estimated $175 billion on federal student aid every year. With both tuition and student debt rising fast, lawmakers say they want to ensure that taxpayers are getting a good return on the nation’s investment in higher education.

To reshape the cost curve, Congress has accrediting agencies like the one Wheelan leads in their crosshairs. Even as higher education’s system of peer-reviewed accountability has been buffeted from all sides — criticized both for being too lax on poor-performing institutions and for imposing too many innovation-killing regulations on them — they are also being called upon to be the chief enforcer of economic accountability.

“Accreditors are going in and being asked to play sheriff,” Wheelan said.

Or maybe not. Some Republican lawmakers have called for decoupling accreditation from Title IV, the federal student aid program.

“We are not sure about anything about the future of accreditation,” Wheelan said. “We know there will be something about the cost of higher education (in HEA).”

Wheelan has a unique perspective on the law. Her 40-year career has included the roles of faculty member, chief student services officer, campus provost, college president and Virginia secretary of education. She’s well-grounded in both higher education politics and policy.

And she told the gathering she’s deeply concerned about the future of American higher education.

“This nation is at a precipice,” she said.

“It is in danger of falling from leadership.”

The Higher Education Act is the law that determines how federal dollars are awarded to colleges and students. It covers nearly all federal higher education funding and programs, including institutional aid, federal student loans and grants, competitive grants and disclosure and reporting requirements.

First signed into law in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society agenda of social programs, the HEA has been reauthorized nine times since first being enacted, the last time in 2008. It is due to be reauthorized again this year.

Both Senate and House committees have been holding hearings on the reauthorization and legislation is expected to be introduced sometime this summer.

For community colleges, the stakes are particularly high, according to J. Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees, and Walter J. Bumphus, president and CEO of  the American Association of Community Colleges.

A letter last summer by Brown and Bumphus to the congressional committees charged with drafting the HEA reauthorization said in part: “No federal legislation is more important to community colleges and their students than the Higher Education Act. Community colleges would look very different, and some would not exist today, were it not for the national investments made through the HEA. The upcoming reauthorization process gives Congress the opportunity to make needed improvements to critical student financial assistance and institutional aid programs.”

“Students need clear, concise, and usable information that enables them to make optimal decisions about the college and program that best suits them. The federal government needs to improve upon its vital role in ensuring that students and consumers receive accurate information about institutions and their programs.”

Increasingly, however, changes in federal education policy are coming from outside the HEA. Frustrated by Congress’ glacial pace and partisan gridlock, Education Department policymakers are turning to federal rule-making and spending bills to enact changes in student financial aid policy. The most vivid example is the gainful employment rules now being developed for vocational programs at for-profit colleges and community colleges.

The proposed rules are intended to improve certificate programs by halting the flow of federal funding to the lowest-performing colleges as measured by graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratios and overall program default rates. They were the topic of a session at the AACC convention, during which some college officials expressed concern about new onerous regulatory burdens.

The rules are aimed primarily at for-profit colleges. According to the Education Department, students at for-profit colleges represent about 13 percent of the total higher education enrollment, but about 31 percent of all student loans and nearly half of all loan defaults. About 22 percent of student borrowers at for-profit colleges defaulted on their loans within three years, compared to 13 percent of borrowers at public colleges.

But community colleges are growing concerned that their institutions will face a mountain of red tape even though only 9 percent of community college students enrolled in certificate programs ever take out student loans. An even smaller number of certificate students amass more than $20,000 in debt.

That means very few community colleges will be at risk for losing student aid eligibility. But compliance with the rules will require the collection and analysis of reams of data on individual students. In addition, once a college is identified as having high rates of student default, and that information becomes public, the college’s reputation will be sullied, even if the numbers cover only a tiny percentage of students.

Just as Wheelan did, the AACC is urging college leaders to weigh in on the regulations. Published last month in the Federal Register, the regulations are 800 pages long and subject to public comment until May 27. To read a summary or submit a comments, click on www.regulations.gov, docket number 2014/06000.

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