Education Department Plans To Move On Higher Ed Commission Advice

The National Commission on the Future of Higher Education has yet to issue a final report, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. Department of Education from making plans to debate and implement its recommendations later this year.

The Bush administration has already scheduled public hearings and organized committees to review the panel’s final recommendations, starting with a hearing Tuesday the same day the commission submits its final report.

Among education advocates, this quick timetable for action has generated surprise and some questions. But some see the hearings as another opportunity to push ideas and proposals the commission did not specifically endorse. 

The department’s interest in the report is encouraging, says Barmak Nassirian, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But he questions whether the commission will provide enough specifics to warrant such fast attention.

So far, he says, “The commission has provided a very generic essay on higher education. You don’t regulate essays.”

In mid-August, the commission approved a final draft report calling for major changes in higher education that included spending more money on Pell Grants by consolidating other programs. However, the panel did not specify what programs should be cut or consolidated to increase Pell spending.

Other recommendations in the draft report include streamlined federal rules and regulations, new accreditation measures, more public information about higher education and increased investment in science and technology programs.

“I don’t disagree with most of the recommendations,” Nassirian says. But there are “not enough details.”

Once the commission issues its final report, the Education Department will move quickly to evaluate its findings. The Education Department will create up to four committees to conduct “negotiated rulemaking,” in which education experts work with the department on technical changes to federal regulations.

The scope of this work will extend beyond the commission’s final report. According to the department, one committee will work on student loan issues while two others will focus on accreditation and student aid. A fourth committee will set permanent rules for two new financial aid programs — the Academic Competitiveness and SMART grants — approved by Congress in last year’s deficit reduction bill.

The department is seeking nominees to serve on these committees, which are expected to hold three meetings beginning in December. The deadline to submit nominees is Nov. 9, and the department has said it is seeking membership from diverse sectors of higher education.

The new round of public hearings also is likely to give education groups another chance to push their own proposals for new spending or streamlined regulations. Among those front and center for this debate is The Project on Student Debt, which wants to reduce burdens on student borrowers.

This coalition of parent and student groups, loan industry officials and other organizations offered several proposals last spring, including more repayment options for low-income borrowers and eliminating all loan balances after 20 years for those with good repayment records.

“One area where the department has a lot of leeway is in loan repayment,” says Robert Shireman, the project’s executive director. He told Diverse that “hundreds of thousands” of borrowers could gain as a result of several basic rule changes.

To help low-income borrowers, the Project on Student Debt wants to base repayments in part on earned income. Under their proposed formula, a borrower generally would pay no more than 10 percent of their income toward loan repayment, and the formula also would take into account the borrower’s income in relation to the poverty level.

Many banks and lenders’ associations support the changes, Shireman says. To build more support, his group plans to speak at the public hearings and seek representation on key rulemaking committees.

A counseling organization also wants the commission and the Education Department to give more attention to college planning.

“The commission’s report has identified challenges, particularly regarding preparation for and access to postsecondary education, that our professionals and others in the education community have grappled with for decades,” says Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

One way to address these challenges is more spending on high school counselors who can advise students about college. High student-to-counselor caseloads make it difficult for many students to receive these services, she says.

“Addressing the staggering student-counselor rate will go a long way toward stemming the very problems the commission raises about barriers to college access,” Smith says.

Rules and Regulations Hearings Scheduled

The U.S. Department of Education is hosting four public regional hearings this fall on potential changes in federal rules and regulations. The regional hearings will be held from 9 a.m. — 4 p.m. local time at the following locations:

Sept. 19: University of California, Berkeley

Oct. 5:    Loyola University, Chicago

Nov. 2: The Royal Pacific Hotel Conference Center in Orlando, Fla.

Nov. 8: The U.S. Department of Education, Washington D.C.

For more information about the upcoming public hearings and to nominate someone for negotiated rulemaking committees, contact Patty Chase at (202) 502-7905. Nominations can be sent by mail to Patty Chase, ED, 1990 K St. NW, Room 8050, Washington, D.C., 20006; by fax to (202) 502-7874, or by e-mail to: Patty.Chase@ed.gov

-Charles Dervarics

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