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Education Department Plans to Move On Higher Ed Commission Advice

Education Department Plans to Move On Higher Ed Commission Advice
By Charles Dervarics

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 is already scheduling public hearings and organizing committees to review the panel’s final recommendations, even though the commission’s final report was not due until mid-September.

For 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.

Once the commission issues its final report, the Education Department will move quickly to evaluate its findings.

The first of four public hearings was scheduled for Sept. 19 at the University of California, Berkeley.

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, which were approved by Congress in last year’s deficit reduction bill.

The new round of public hearings is also 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. “Hundreds of thousands” of borrowers could gain as a result of several basic rule changes, he says.

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

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.

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