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Washington Update – Public Policy

by on February 14, 2013

February 12, 2013

VAWA
Tuesday night, the Senate passed the VAWA bill, with bi partisan support. The House Democrats are calling for the bill to again be brought up before the House and for its passage. The challenges will be the same issues as in the past bill with the revenue provision regarding visas and the expansion of the bill. We will continue to monitor to see if any progress is made on the introduction and passage of the bill.
Budget
The budget and Sequestration continue to be the focus of discussions on the Hill. There is no deal in place for Sequestration to be averted – which means about a 9% cut in the Department of Education budget impacting all programs except Pell will be implemented as of March 1st. The other challenge is that Congress has yet to pass a budget for the FY 2013. We are currently operating under a CR (continuing resolution) which expires at the end of February. At this point the House Budget committee is working to develop a bill to extend the CR through the end of FY 2013 (September 30th). This will continue funding for all agencies at the FY 2012 levels. This does not take into account the new numbers once Sequestration goes into affect, those budget numbers will have to adjusted. We have two weeks until these budget deadline hit and most on Capitol Hill and in Washington believe sequestration will go into affect.
State of the Union and Higher Education
President Obama on Tuesday night called for major changes to the criteria accreditors use to evaluate colleges, asking Congress to either require accreditors to take college prices and educational value into account or to create an alternative system based on “performance and results.” Either could mark a significant shift in how the federal government judges higher education quality and eligibility for financial aid programs.
The few sentences on higher education in the State of the Union speech hit many of the same themes as last year, when Obama first told colleges they were “on notice” and would have to either control rising costs or lose federal money. “Taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize higher and higher and higher costs of higher education,” the president said Tuesday night. “Colleges must do their part to keep their costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do.”
From those few sentences — Obama did not mention accreditation in his speech, only in specifics provided by the White House afterward — the president seemed to be giving roughly the same message as last year, when he proposed reallocating campus-based aid and creating a “Race to the Top” for higher education. Both proposals went nowhere in Congress. But supplementary documents the White House released immediately after his speech provided a few more specifics and signaled a shift in tactics.
Rather than trying to push that agenda through changes in campus-based aid programs (such as federal work study and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant), which make up only a small part of all financial aid for college students, the president is now calling for Congress to force accreditors to play a bigger role in measuring the cost and value of higher education and distributing financial aid accordingly.
The administration’s message on college costs and accountability over the past year has generally not been welcomed by college officials, who fear a growing regulatory burden and burgeoning federal influence on campus. But taking on accreditation touches a deeper nerve. Colleges fiercely defend accreditation by their peers as the best way to ensure quality education, and accreditors have complained of growing scrutiny and “granularity” from the federal government.
Obama’s remarks seemed to indicate that he is not inclined to trust accreditors to choose the criteria on which they evaluate colleges, and that he would like to see the federal government play a larger role in determining what constitutes a high-quality education.
Obama indicated he would pursue his plan in the next renewal of the Higher Education Act, saying he would ask Congress to change the act “so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.” The law governing federal financial aid officially expires at the end of the year, but few expect Congress to get around to reauthorizing it before 2015.

In the supporting documents he went a bit further, specifically singling out the accreditation system (which his administration has studied). “The President will call on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.”
Both the speech and the supplementary documents were vague, leaving college lobbyists and other observers to try to guess the president’s plans from a few sentences. A key and still unanswered question is how to define “value,” although the administration has previously described it as the ability for students to get jobs and pay off their loans.
The lack of clarity makes it hard to draw any conclusions about Obama’s plans, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. The administration provided little background for stakeholders, making it more difficult to discern what the proposals actually are.
Still, Hartle warned that increasing federal regulations for colleges, or their accreditors, would face resistance. “Colleges and universities are already subject to a very complex system of accountability before they can participate in federal student aid programs,” he said. “We can always do a better job, and we look forward to working with the administration to ensure that higher education remains the best investment that a student can make.”
The federal government could use the opportunity to provide clarity on accreditation, such as by emphasizing which areas it cares most about when evaluating accreditors, he said. But colleges and accreditors would not welcome additional regulations.
“The federal role in accreditation is already enormous,” he said.
Obama also used the speech to give another boost to past proposals, such as an $8 billion fund for community college proposed in his budget request last year. The final version of another previously announced federal project, a “college scorecard” intended to give students an idea of what they can expect from higher education, will be unveiled today, he said.
He also warned of the effects that mandatory budget cuts, set to take effect in less than three weeks, could have on federal research and education programs.
“I was very pleased to hear President Obama speak so enthusiastically this evening about the need to invest in research, much of which occurs at our public and land-grant universities,” Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said in a statement. “The president clearly understands that a strong federal commitment to research at our universities is directly linked to our nation’s ability to provide economic opportunities for our citizens.”
The Republican rebuttal to the president’s remarks, delivered by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, was unusual in spending as much (if not more) time on higher education than the State of the Union itself did.
Rubio, who is leading a push for colleges to disclose more information about students’ salaries, mentioned his own six-figure student debt. He called for “strengthening and modernizing” financial aid programs, emphasizing the growing number of nontraditional students in higher education and calling for student aid that “does not discriminate” against prior learning assessments and online programs.
Inside Higher Ed

FiveTakeaways from the State of the Union Speech
1. Obama goes big on guns: With a chamber sprinkled with the families of victims of gun violence in Connecticut and Illinois, as well as former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the biggest question looming over President Obama’s speech was how forceful he would be on guns. It’s no secret that the proposals put forward by Vice President Biden have met with an indifferent, to put it mildly, response from Congress.
Obama’s decision to save his remarks on guns until the end of the State of the Union and to aggressively urge a vote on all of his gun proposals was, by far, the boldest portion of his speech. If you are looking for a takeaway from the speech, it is this: “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote.” Obama’s comments on guns will be the lasting legacy of this speech and a sign that his past pledges to use all of his political power to bring about measures he believes will curb gun violence were not simply rhetoric.
2. Obama’s vision of government: Ever since Bill Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over” 17 years ago, Democrats have been grappling with what role the government should play in average Americans’ lives. Obama sought to articulate the party’s answer to that question Tuesday night with the line: “It’s not a bigger government we need but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.” The phrasing attempts to strike a balance between the less-government-the-better view of most Republicans and the New Deal view that Democrats before Clinton long ascribed to.
3. A major climate change play: In the first 30 minutes of the speech, President Obama not only mentioned climate change but also made clear that if Congress didn’t act, he would. His rhetoric on the issue was tough, echoing how he framed the issue in his inaugural address several weeks ago. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen, were all just a freak coincidence,” said Obama. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.” That’s about as direct a call for action by Congress on climate change as you will hear from a president.
4. A major victory for voting rights advocates: The debate over who can vote, when they can vote and who is trying to stop them animates the Democratic base like no other. Obama dedicated time to the topic in his speech — and announced the formation of a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting process. “When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” said Obama.
5. The economy, kind of: Yes, the bulk of the speech — in terms of words spoken — dealt with the economy. And, yes, he urged Congress to avert the sequester and not shut the government down at the end of next month. But the devil, as always, is in the details, and Obama didn’t offer many of them. With Republicans already on record as opposed to any attempt to bypass the sequester, it’s hard to see how the Congress finds a way to do so. Yes, President Obama talked about the economy. But it’s hard to say he moved the debate forward. At all

Report Calls for Doubling Pell
The latest in a series of papers on redesigning the federal financial aid system calls for doubling the Pell Grant, reconfiguring how the government accounts for student loan default risks and requiring risk-sharing at colleges that receive the majority of revenue from federal funds. The white paper, from the Institute for College Access and Success, is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project, which asked for ideas on changing federal financial aid to promote college completion.
The report is the first in the series to call for major additional investment in federal financial aid. It would pay for the doubled maximum Pell Grant in part by eliminating tax benefits for higher education. The report also includes less sweeping recommendations, including simplifying the financial aid application process and promoting tools that give students clear information about outcomes.
http://projectonstudentdebt.org/files/pub/TICAS_RADD_White_Paper.pdf

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