The Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), today held a hearing entitled, "Keeping College Within Reach: The Role of Federal Student Aid Programs." During the hearing, members and higher education experts discussed the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and explored the question of whether the federal government should maintain its traditional focus on improving access to higher education, or move toward a system that ties federal aid to student outcomes, job placement, or graduation rates.
"In this debate, we find ourselves at a crossroads between accountability and limited government," Rep. Foxx said. "The federal government spends more than $140 billion on financial aid programs annually. Given the significant amount of taxpayer money being spent and our nation's budgetary challenges, we all want to ensure these dollars are actually helping more students earn college degrees."
Rep. Foxx continued, "However, we must also be mindful of the consequences that could come with expanding the federal government's role in the allocation of financial aid. Federal financial aid programs intended to help low-income Americans pay for college should never be used as bargaining chips to impose federal price controls, nor should we take any action that could limit students' ability to choose the institution that best fits their needs."
Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President of the American Council on Education's Division of Government and Public Affairs, said, "For almost 50 years, the central goal of federal student aid was to increase access to postsecondary education for all students... Universal opportunity was a uniquely bold and American experiment and it worked However, in this century and in this year, it is incumbent upon Congress to debate whether this goal ought to be amended or expanded in ways that acknowledge current realities and contemporary challenges. Regardless of whether or what changes or additions to the core federal goal are desirable, it is important that we maintain the goal of facilitating access to higher education."
Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire said, "Federal financial aid is one of the most reliable, durable pillars of the framework we create for low income students who have few other sources of support to help them leverage their lives from places of despair to platforms of real success. We can all agree that the current system can use some reform to make it better. But the system is hardly "broken' as some critics claim. Rather, it needs updating for the new populations of students who attend school in ways that are quite different from traditional students of the past."
Ms. McGuire later cautioned against proposals that could limit federal aid opportunities for low-income students: "No one quarrels with accountability for the considerable federal investment in higher education, but some of the notions about what constitutes accountability are potentially quite destructive."
Former U.S. Department of Education employee Daniel Madzelan offered several suggestions for improving the federal financial aid system, including simplifying the application process and streamlining student loan programs.
Mr. Madzelan also offered his perspective on accountability: "We should have accountability for all federal aid dollars through a multi-pronged assessment of institutional eligibility for Title IV financial aid that considers measures of access and equity, loan repayment, and risk-adjusted completion rates. Institutional and government data systems continue to improve, so a more balanced set of metrics that measure access, completion, and value are more feasible than ever, and could help protect students and taxpayers from the most egregious cases of debt with no degree while also promoting overall transparency for consumers."