GOP Leaders Irate Over
Faulty Aid Forms
WASHINGTON — Students who depend on financial aid to attend college are receiving poor service from the U.S. Department of Education, angry congressional Republicans charged earlier this month.
At issue is a series of recent problems affecting application forms that students must fill out to qualify for aid. Last fall, department officials recalled about 3.5 million forms because of text errors.
The latest problem, GOP leaders say, involves confusion about a new requirement that students answer a question on the form asking whether they have ever had any drug convictions.
About 20 percent of all applicants, or 140,000 students, failed to answer the question this year — possibly because of confusion about its wording. As a result, colleges have had to delay aid disbursement to those students (see Black Issues, March 16).
The agency’s financial aid system is suffering from “persistent, serious problems” in processing applications, complains Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, in a letter signed by three other GOP critics.
“Millions of students depend on federal funds to make attending college a reality,” Goodling says. “The Education Department has a responsibility to ensure those forms are free of errors or misleading questions.”
Instead, Goodling charged, department officials have been lax in field-testing its forms to catch potential problems before the agency distributes them to the public. The lawmakers criticized the “awkwardly worded” question on drug convictions, an issue that is a sore spot with some colleges and students.
In 1998, Congress passed a plan requiring the government to deny aid to students with drug convictions. But college officials have questioned how they will be able to monitor this practice. The question on the new Free Application for Federal Financial Aid was to begin to answer that question.
Goodling says he’s particularly interested in department officials finding a solution to the drug conviction question that is easily conveyed to students but also avoids placing heavy burdens on schools.
Department officials say they won’t prevent students from receiving aid if they didn’t answer the question on drug convictions. But students who left the answer blank will get notices that they must immediately report any past drug conviction, and they could face penalties for lying on financial-aid forms.
Tribal-run Colleges Can’t be
Sued for Discrimination
WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled earlier this month that tribal-run colleges cannot be sued for racial discrimination because federal law gives American Indian tribes sovereign immunity.
The decision reverses a lower-court ruling that Sisseton-Wahpeton Community College in South Dakota should pay more than $320,000 to two former college officials who contended they were let go because they are White.
Vicky Hagen, the college’s former dean of instruction, and Colin Harris, its former development director, sued the college in 1995 after administrators did not renew their contracts.
A federal court jury awarded Hagen $100,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. Jurors gave Harris $220,628 in lost wages and compensatory and punitive damages. College officials did not appear at the trial.
But a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, saying that because the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe runs the college, the tribe’s sovereign immunity also extends to the school.
IRS Wants to Tax Exclusive
Campus Vending Contracts
WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service says it wants to begin taxing payments that soft-drink companies, athletic-equipment manufacturers and other companies make to colleges in exchange for exclusive campus contracts.
IRS officials say even though public colleges and universities generally are exempt, such income can be taxed under current law because the income is not related to the institution’s core mission of education.
Soft-drink bottlers and athletic equipment companies often pay colleges and universities millions of dollars for exclusive contracts that allow them to distribute only their products on campus.
Colleges and universities that want to comment on the proposed rules, which were published in the Federal Register on March 1, can write to: IRS, Room 5226, P.O. Box 7604, Ben Franklin Station, Washington, D.C., 20044 or e-mail to www.irs.gov/tax_regs/regslist.html.
Education Dept. Offers Grants
Based on TRIO Ideas
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Education is offering $5 million to colleges and universities with a track record of serving low-income and first-generation college students — even if they do not have a TRIO grant.
Under the TRIO Dissemination Program, department officials hope to adapt successful TRIO ideas and strategies at colleges and universities without a grant under the early intervention and retention program.
Colleges are eligible for the new funds if they do not now have a TRIO grant but were carrying out a TRIO program before October 1998. TRIO programs include Upward Bound, Talent Search and Educational Opportunity Centers.
Individual grants will range from $130,000 to $200,000, with an average allotment of $167,000. The Education Department expects to make 25 to 30 grants. Applications are due May 15.
For more information, see the Feb. 29 Federal Register or visit the department’s Web site @ http://ocfo.ed.gov/fedreg/grantann/
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