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Posted at 10:46 AM ET, 12/07/2011

Guest post: In defense of federal student aid

It’s election season, and nearly all Republican candidates want the government to scale back its role in education.

According to this helpful Associated Press primer, several candidates would abolish or shrink the U.S. Department of Education. Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul want to shut down the agency, and Rick Perry turned down federal education aid to Texas.

Here, writing in defense of student aid, is L. Jay Lemons, president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

Although the Congressional Super Committee failed to reach its goal of cutting $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit, Congress is already discussing how to continue the committee’s work because of funding deficits that threaten to further cripple our economy.

All areas of the budget are subject to cuts in this process, and I am worried about the long-term impacts of any reductions in student aid. Moreover, we have had a presidential candidate advocating the elimination of student aid programs altogether.

This is personal for me.

I was a recipient of the full panoply of federal student aid programs, including PELL, SEOG, National Direct (now Perkins) and Guaranteed Student loans and work study, in addition to private institutional aid and the generous acts of some angels who made it possible for me to attend Nebraska Wesleyan University. As a college president, I know firsthand that cuts in student aid will exacerbate our economic problems and will further disenfranchise young people. The requirements of a highly competitive, technology and knowledge-based economy depend upon well-educated persons. More than nearly any federal dollar spent, student aid should be viewed as an investment.

The federal PELL grant program grew from $13.9 billion in 2007 to more than $32 billion in 2010. This increase is in part a result of raising the value of the awards, but is due more broadly to staggering growth in the number of recipients. Much of this is a result of the economy. When people cannot find work, they often return to school to train or re-train. Also, when a head of household loses his or her job, students who had not previously qualified for aid might now receive assistance that keeps them from dropping out of school. Both of these causes for increased program costs are worth supporting.

However, one aspect of the explosion in PELL costs that bears much greater scrutiny is the increase in program dollars going to for-profit schools in our country. Some of these schools do fine work and are introducing change and innovations that are positive for higher education. But some of these schools are of questionable value for students and are, in my opinion, not a good investment of federal tax dollars.

Fundamentally, in an era of austerity, I struggle with the question of how we can justify federal tax dollars supporting for-profit institutions when there is not adequate support for the not-for-profit sector that has served our nation very well throughout its history. Why should scarce federal tax dollars in the form of PELL grants go to the pockets of shareholders of companies when there are incredible needs in the not-for-profit sector?

Recently, while on Capitol Hill, I was asked by a legislative staffer if I favored reducing the maximum Pell Grant award or limiting the number of recipients. This is the wrong question. I quickly replied that I would favor stricter criteria for institutions to receive aid than upon limits that directly impact students.

Perhaps the time has come for the government to demand greater evidence that our institutions are built upon a business model that is not solely dependent or nearly so on federal student aid dollars. Perhaps the time has come for the government to demand a minimal expectation with regard to graduation rates; even a rate as low as 25 percent, would be an increased expectation. Perhaps the time has come for the government to employ more resources to investigate and punish fraudulent activity that drains federal resources and preys upon vulnerable students.

Such expectations would separate the wheat from the chaff. It could eliminate the charlatans that haunt the for-profit higher education world. It would create a minimum set of expectations for all institutions. It would no doubt save tax dollars and allow for the sustained investment in higher education that is critical to working our way through the economic malaise of the Great Recession.

By  |  10:46 AM ET, 12/07/2011

Categories:  Aid, Public policy, For-profit colleges

 
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