WASHINGTON – National advocates for simplifying the federal student aid program urged colleagues gathered at a College Board policy forum Thursday to prepare for a long-term campaign for change, telling them not to be dismayed if little of their agenda is in the higher education legislation attached to President Obama’s health care reform bill to be voted on by Congress this week.
“It’s clear we’re going to be a little disappointed, but actually we should be encouraged,” said Dr. Sandy Baum, co-chair of the College Board’s Rethinking Student Aid (RSA) study group, organized in 2005. “If we only think of what’s going to get through Congress this month, this year, then we lose,” Baum warned. “We need to make sure we don’t throw up our hands.”
Scrapping the FAFSA form, as it is now known and disliked, giving the federal funding formula more certainty by linking it to an index, and ensuring aid gets to the neediest of students are among the broad points of the group’s public policy change proposals that had been issued in September 2008.
“Listen to the conversation (today),” Baum told the group, meeting at the Newseum, a few blocks from Capitol Hill in downtown Washington. “It’s really changed from two years ago,” said Baum, referring to the public reception the task force proposals received initially in 2008.
Baum’s comments to some 100 academic leaders from across the country were offered during what was the final RSA task force forum, a series of town-hall-like meetings over the past year that have taken the group and its proposals from the Bay Area of northern California to locations including Las Vegas and Boston. At each stop, task force members have been vetting their recommendations and drumming up grassroots support among students, parents and the academic community.
Likening calls for student aid reform to health care reform, other participants in the forum echoed Baum’s appeal for patience and assertion that progress has been made.
“It’s (the RSA agenda) made its way into the (legislative) conversation and into legislative language,” says Tom Rudin, senior vice president for advocacy, government relations and development at the College Board. “Yes, it’s (this week’s forum) the capstone event but also the next phase of some serious work,” Rudin said.
David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, urged the forum participants to move the RSA agenda into a “redoing” stage at the federal, state and institutional levels, asserting that the opportunity is at hand to pursue meaningful change. Longanecker said higher education now has “friendly folks” in the White House and on Capitol Hill and “our system is broken; it’s got to be repaired.”
Longanecker asserted that more and more colleges and higher education systems are increasingly cash strapped and know their goals and needs are facing the harsh realities of the nation’s ailing economy. “We don’t have the money to meet the financial needs we’ve identified,” Longanecker said.
Forum leaders steered participants away from trying to develop a new action agenda, saying they wanted the ideas set forth in the 2008 RSA report to work their way through the system, even if they evolve over time in the process. Baum, Rubin and others urged participants to focus on the long haul, declining to put a time frame around it.
Baum, an independent higher education policy analyst and professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College in New York, did offer some headlines of what she would be doing to keep the dialogue and agenda alive.
Baum, with the support of the Indiana-based Lumina Foundation and others, said she will be leading a small team that will soon begin working with several states on reforming state-level financial aid programs.
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