Thursday, September 10, 2009

Progress on Reforming Federal Aid

While the nation has been storming and heckling and angst-ing over health insurance reform, there has been a productive conversation and quiet, steady progress toward reforming the federal student aid system.

The direction of reform takes is consistent with the recommendations made by the College Board’s Rethinking Student Aid task force, of which I am a member. My work with Judy Scott-Clayton (newly minted Harvard PhD, now an assistant professor at Columbia) has also influenced the conversation.

Developments that make this policy wonk’s heart twitter with happiness:

  • The IRS has agreed to pass tax data of aid applicants to the Department of Education (ED), thereby allowing for the automatic pre-filling of the dreaded Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) with tax return data already collected by the feds. Getting IRS to play nice with ED was a major barrier to student aid reform. Kudos to all who nudged, cajoled and threatened the federal bureaucracy into cooperating with itself!
  • House and Senate committees are working on bills that remove from the aid formula (almost!) all data items that don’t already reside in the IRS data files. Should they (as I recommend) get rid of all the non-tax data items, this allows for an application-free aid system. Anything short of that and we are stuck with an application, albeit a shortened one.
  • ED has substantially improved the interface and skip logic of the Web FAFSA. This makes life simpler for those students who fill out the form online. The paper FAFSA is still pretty horrifying, however, and that is the form that matters for those who do not have access to broadband at home (hint: poor people).
  • This week, Joe Biden chaired a White House Middle Class Task Force meeting at Syracuse University on barriers to college entry and completion. The Task Force also released a report that describes the Obama administration’s goals for restructuring student aid, while the Council of Economic Advisers and National Economic Council released a report on the same topic.

So exciting to see our research and analysis shaping the path of policy in DC. Simplification has been a topic in which conservatives and liberals have found common ground. Knock on wood that this cooperation continues.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Two Perspectives on Harvard in Sunday NYT

In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Harvard President Drew Faust has an essay (“The University’s Crisis of Purpose “) on the social mission of the university. She questions whether colleges have tilted too far toward moneymaking and materialism:

As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities — in their research, teaching and writing — have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? ….Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?

In the same issue of the Times, we learn that Harvard has lent its name to a line of pricey preppy clothing. In the Harvard Yard menswear line, Oxford shirts start at $165, jackets at $495. Message: Harvard can be bought by men who can afford it.

As is frequently true, those who make financial decisions at Harvard are working at cross-purposes with the institution’s academic leadership. The University spends a lot of time and money trying to make itself welcoming to low-income kids. Image is important, and the image projected by this line of clothing is rich, preppy and male. The few bucks ($500K/year for all licensed clothing, including this line) Harvard makes on this licensing deal are far outweighed by the damage it does to its reputation.