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College leaders give Congress their HEA wish list

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Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and other House leaders will soon tackle reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce

Community college leaders want to see the Higher Education Act (HEA) improved to better support student completion, overhaul key provisions of the student loan program and promote innovation.

American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) President Walter Bumphus and Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) President Noah Brown have sent a joint letter outlining a comprehensive set of recommendations on the HEA to key House leaders—Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce; ranking committee member Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.); Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee; and ranking subcommittee member Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas).

Congress has not yet scheduled hearings on legislation to reauthorize HEA.

Clear data on completion

The joint letter calls for more accurate measures of student success, noting that the current “student right-to-know” completion rate excludes many community college completers, causing "serious distortions in public perceptions of institutional outcomes.”

AACC policy brief: Transfer: An Indispensable Part of the Community College Mission The way completion rates are currently calculated leaves out students who finish the coursework to transfer to a four-year institution without getting an associate degree, resulting in artificially low completion rates, according to the letter. Incorporating transfer students would increase the community college three-year completion rate from 22 percent to 40 percent.

AACC and ACCT are also urging House lawmakers to consider the new voluntary Student Achievement Measure and AACC's Voluntary Framework of Accountability as they overhaul performance-related reporting requirements. In addition, the associations are calling for Congress to improve information on earnings of postsecondary graduates, student default rates, and tuition and other student costs.

Improving financial aid

Congress should make it easier for students to get access to financial aid and to protect them from borrowing more than they need, the letter said. This effort should reaffirm the need to provide sufficient resources to institutions that serve at-risk and minority students.

AACC policy brief: Promoting Educational Opportunity: The Pell Grant Program at Community Colleges

A key student aid program for community colleges is the Pell grant program. AACC and ACCT said it is fundamentally sound, and lawmakers shouldn't restructure it. However, the associations would like to see some important changes, including reinstating the ability-to-benefit (ATB) provisions. When Congress last year nixed ATB, which allowed students to apply for Pell grants while completing a high school diploma or GED, it shut the door to college for some 50,000 students a year, according to AACC.

Community college leaders are also urging lawmakers to reinstitute year-round Pell grants, noting that eliminating financial aid during the summer semester reduces student persistence and on-time completion.

“Students need more flexibility in accessing financial aid,” the letter said. “In particular, low-income students should be able to enroll continuously.”

For similar reasons, the college leaders urged Congress to raise the lifetime limit for Pell grant eligibility from 12 to 14 semesters. And they want colleges to have more flexibility to use Pell grant funds for certain short-term workforce training and remedial programs not currently eligible.

Lower the loan cap

AACC and ACCT make several recommendations to ensure the federal student loan program better meets the needs of community colleges and students, while reducing the risk for students and taxpayers. For example, they recommend that community colleges no longer be penalized for high student default rates.

Join AACC Oct. 20–22 in Washington, D.C., for the 2013 Washington Advocacy Seminar

“Default rates remain a crude proxy for institutional quality,” especially when only a small percentage of two-year college students borrow, the letter said.

To prevent students from over-borrowing, AACC and ACCT suggested pro-rating loan limits based on how many credits students are taking and also imposing maximum limits of $15,500 for associate-degree and certificate-seeking dependent students and $28,750 for independent students. The current limits are $31,000 and $57,000, respectively, which may be appropriate for baccalaureate students but are too high for community college students.

Among other recommendations involving financial aid:

  • Give colleges the flexibility to set lower maximum loan amounts for certain students, such as those who need a lot of developmental education.
  • Nix the provision that limits the in-school interest subsidy on Stafford loans to 150 percent of the length of a student’s program.
  • Simplify enrollment in loan payment plans and consider consolidating the four income-related plans.
  • Include private student loans in national databases.
  • Encourage all community college students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Encourage innovation

Due to recent trends—the focus on the completion agenda, a growing population of disadvantaged students and cuts in state funding—community colleges have an expanding role to play in cultivating student engagement, according to the associations.

To promote that objective, AACC and ACCT have recommended a pilot program to provide a financial incentive “for those students who attain degrees in circumstances where the odds are particularly daunting.”

To offset dramatic cuts in state aid, the letter called for the federal government to support maintenance-of-effort provisions based on per-student funding levels, rather than aggregate amounts that do not reflect increased enrollment levels.

Community colleges strengthen their K-12 partnerships

The college leaders also proposed a new federal initiative, a “Pell bonus for community colleges” to provide additional funds for colleges that attain a certain combined graduation and transfer rate. Another new program proposed by AACC and ACCT would provide funds to promote partnerships between community colleges and high schools.

The associations also encouraged Congress to improve access to higher education through such means as competency-based models that measure student learning, not just seat time, and through incentives to establish or expand dual-enrollment programs.

A campus-wide approach to reducing textbook costs

Finally to promote affordability, AACC and ACCT recommend policies aimed at addressing the high cost of textbooks. Colleges should be able to purchase “unbundled” materials from publishers, who should also provide faculty and students with accurate information about textbook costs as early as possible.

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