A Community College Wish List for the HEA
As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, community college leaders have prepared a long list of items they’d like to see in the legislation. Chief among them is preservation and expansion of the Pell Grant program Here’s a list of some of the items considered priorities by the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees:
Protect Pell Grants More than 3.3 million community college students received Pell Grants in the 2011-12 award year, including 48 percent of all full-time students. Given deep cuts in state support to higher education over the last five years, institutions have been forced to raise tuition to maintain quality. Tuition now represents 31 percent of all community college revenues, an increase from 22 percent ten years ago. Eligibility changes in the program during the past few years have denied opportunities to many students.
Reinstate the Year-Round Pell Grant
In 2008, Congress created a “yearround” Pell Grant. This change recognized the fact that many students want to attend college continuously rather than taking a break each summer. But after just one year of implementation, Congress eliminated the year-round Pell Grant in order to address a funding shortfall. The elimination of the year-round Pell Grant has had a large negative impact on community college students. The full impact of the change cannot be measured because the expanded eligibility was not in place long enough. Community colleges had already started to restructure academic programs to use the new, expanded assistance. With the elimination of the year-round Pell Grant, much of that program modification was stopped in its tracks. Summer enrollments at many community colleges decreased noticeably in 2012 and the same pattern has been seen in the summer of 2013, with many student financial aid administrators stating that Pell-supported students have declined significantly.
Give More Flexibility for Pell Grants for Innovative Programs
At many community colleges, new programs are being developed that do not necessarily meet the requirements for Title IV programmatic eligibility, particularly very short-term programs, which could be directed towards workforce preparation or preparing students for particular occupations. Congress should authorize institutions to use up to 2 percent of their prior year Pell Grant expenditures for programs that are not currently eligible for Title IV, but which are aligned with programs that are.
Establish More Accurate Measures of Student Success
Current metrics used by the federal government exclude significant numbers of community college completers, causing distortions in public perceptions of institutional outcomes. While the shortcomings of the existing outcomes measures for community colleges are unique in some respects, the existing measures are flawed for all sectors of higher education. Congress should devote sustained focus on this topic in reauthorization. One positive outcome of improving the graduation rate and related calculations at the federal level would be to put an end to the proliferation of duplicative systems devoted to determining the “success” of colleges. The current patchwork often confuses students and policymakers.
Track Student Progression and Earnings Information
The federal government must ensure that students are tracked throughout their course in postsecondary education. There are different routes to achieving this end, but the lack of national framework for monitoring student progress, such as a federal unit record database, must be addressed. Congress should also ensure that the earnings of all postsecondary program completers be made available to institutions at their request. These earnings could be provided at post-graduate intervals sufficient to capture the different earning arcs of students enrolled in different programs.
Establish a New Student Default Risk Index (SDRI)
Current cohort default rates (CDRs) assess institutional eligibility for Title IV financial aid based on the share of a school’s borrowers who default within the first three years of repayment. Colleges with CDRs above certain thresholds may face sanctions that end their eligibility for federal student aid. But CDRs are insufficient sources of consumer information because they exclude non-borrowers. The vast majority of community college students do not borrow. The HEA should create a new Student Default Risk Index (SDRI). Under this new calculation, each school’s three-year Cohort Default Rate would be multiplied by the percentage of students at that school who take out federal loans. By incorporating the share of students who borrow into the measure, the SDRI would more accurately convey the pattern of default risk for students at a given school. It would also help the public better understand institutions, which is particularly important given the false impressions created by the current default rate calculations.
Simplify and Improve the Student Aid and Loan Programs
Federal student aid has provided millions of community college students the opportunity to attend and graduate from college. But over time the Title IV programs have grown more complex. New eligibility restrictions for the Pell Grant program have prevented many students from attending college. At the same time, rapid increases in borrowing and a difficult economy have challenged students’ ability to repay their loans. Congress should use this reauthorization to revisit earlier decisions about grant eligibility that have reduced access, while simplifying loan repayment options and protecting students from over-borrowing.
Tie Student Loan Amounts to Enrollment Intensity
Community colleges support responsible student borrowing. But schools have few practical ways to prevent students from over-borrowing. Today’s undergraduate loan limits are designed to accommodate the higher tuition levels at four-year institutions. Like similar rules for the Pell Grant program, colleges support linking Stafford loan limits, both subsidized and unsubsidized, to a student’s enrollment status or intensity. A student attending one-half or three-quarters time should be eligible for proportionally less loan volume each year than a student attending full-time. Limits based on enrollment status should include some allowance for cost of living for students who are enrolled less-than-full-time.
Refine Income-Related Repayment of Student Loans
The desire to provide more repayment options for students has demonstrably increased the complexity of federal loan repayment programs. There are currently seven different loan repayment options, including four income-related repayment plans. The complexity of various overlapping options and minute eligibility differences has meant that many borrowers have difficulty understanding or enrolling in the programs that can best help them manage their debt. Congress should explore specific debt thresholds that could trigger automatic enrollment in an income-related plan.
Ensure that Community College Students Apply for Financial Aid
Data shows that more than 20 percent of all community college students, most of them part-time, do not fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). While this percentage has decreased slightly in recent years, the fact that so many students do not complete a FASFA is unacceptable. The complexity of the application form, while considerable, is only partly responsible for students not completing the application process. Institutions should be expected to ensure that the vast majority of their students file a FAFSA; this could be tied to Title IV institutional eligibility. Students should not be obligated to complete the FAFSA, but most will want to and should be helped to do so.
Source: AACC, ACCT