January 29, 2008
In last night’s State of the Union address, President Bush called on Congress to cut down on bill earmarking. Earmarks, often attached to spending bills at the last minute, have been used to designate money to benefit legislators' personal interests. Local and state projects that may not have otherwise been funded are often successfully snuck into an earmark and financed.
Sometimes used as “paybacks” for organizations that donate money to a legislator’s campaign, earmarks have received negative attention in the press. However, numerous colleges and universities have also been able to profit from them. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, $2 billion for research, construction and school projects was earmarked for colleges and universities in 2003. Criticizing the practice, President Bush stated that most earmarks don’t even make it to the floor of the House or Senate saying, “You didn’t vote them into law. I didn’t sign them into law.”
If earmarking is curbed, some schools may see a decline in their budgets, and will have to look elsewhere for additional funding. But because Mr. Bush was referring to the 2009 budget, legislators still have the option of bypassing a veto by delaying approval of the spending bill.
January 31, 2008
Each year, I heard complaints about the textbook policies of my old college economics teacher. He wrote the only textbook required for class and re-released it—in a nearly identical format—annually. As a result, previous students couldn’t make money by reselling their old books, and new students couldn’t buy used books at a discounted price.
If the House passes its proposed textbook bill, universities might be forced to curb this type of practice. The new bill would make it mandatory for colleges to release course supply information in catalogs thereby giving students the chance to consider class costs before signing up and the time to search for cheaper resources.
Publishers would also have to play a part in decreasing the supply prices. The bill proposed that publishers be forced to minimize textbook costs by cutting down on attached CDs and workbooks. They would also have to publicize the wholesale costs of books and to make known the previous versions costs. If the new versions were revised, the revisions would have to be summarized. With this information, students would be better equipped to decide whether a new textbook version was worth the price.
The book addendum, a part of the House’s new version of the Higher Education Act, was not a part of the corresponding version already approved by the Senate. If the House passes this bill, Senators will again have to approve the changes.
February 5, 2008
On February 4th, President Bush unveiled his much criticized national budget to a frustrated Congress. Members of both parties found fault with the president for his proposal to increase funding for the military at the expense of Medicare. According to the Los Angeles Times, President Bush’s proposal could slow the growth of Medicare programs by nearly $208 billion over the next five years.
The budget for the Department of Education, on the other hand, was received with mixed reviews. A firm advocate of scientific research, the president proposed that funds for physical-science research, much of which would go to colleges and universities, increase in the upcoming year.
While physical scientists cheered in one corner, medical researchers jeered in the other. Once again, The National Institute of Health (NIH), the primary government agency responsible for health-related research, was upset with the president's funding proposal.
After his decision to veto a bill that would increase NIH funding in November, the president's budget did not come as much of a surprise. Upon hearing last year's proposal, Bush claimed that Congress was, "acting like a teenager with a new credit card." Ironically, if Bush's budget is approved, skyrocketing national debt is expected. The current U.S. debt could more than double over the next two years if Congress chooses to accept the budget. More likely, the proposal will be stalled until President Bush leaves office.
February 19, 2008
Despite investigations into shady business practices of study-abroad programs across the nation, Congress continues to support the idea of travel for college students. Last June, a bill to increase study-abroad funding was passed in the House, and a similar version was approved last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The initial version of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation bill was passed by the House in June, 2007 and introduced to the Senate by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Norm Coleman (R-MN). If passed, it would allow Congress to appropriate $80 million each year towards a foundation awarding financial aid to study-abroad students.
The bill would encourage one million students to study abroad, especially in non-traditional settings. According to Senator Durbin, the travel will, “allow students the opportunity to grow and gain skills to help our nation compete in the globalized world.”
Now that the bill has been approved by the Senate committee, it will move to the Senate floor for a full vote. Approval seems likely as positive feedback has been expressed by both parties.
The proposal is particularly aimed at assisting minority students with scholarships and grants. Senator Coleman stated that, “The goal of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act is to make study abroad in high-quality programs in diverse locations around the world the routine, rather than the exception, for American college students.”
Over the past year, study abroad programs have received more publicity for their troubles than their benefits. Inquiries into the actions of program representatives who received free trips and money for meeting student traveler quotas have marred the image of numerous programs. If the appropriations are approved, increased financial accountability is likely.
Students interested in studying abroad need not wait until this bill clears both chambers. By completing a free college scholarship search, students can find information about numerous college scholarships and grants that can help them afford school. Both study-abroad scholarships and awards based on different criteria are available.
March 26, 2008
The recipe for the No Child Left Behind Act seems simple: identify ineffective schools, and improve their student performance. Sprinkle in a dash of funds, a threatening environment for underperforming teachers, and melt away problems at 365°.
Unfortunately, most successful plans call for more than a dash of funds. And as was demonstrated by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the No Child Left Behind progress, funding problems have been leaving states struggling to comply with the program’s requirements. Of particular concern were two NCLB provisions responsible for regulating the allocation of federal education funds.
As mandated by the No Child Left Behind, states are required to set aside 4 percent of the federal assistance they receive to help low-income students and use that money to improve schools that have failed to meet state academic expectations. No problem there. Because most poorly-scoring schools are low income, the 4 percent used to improve schools would indirectly help the low-income students.
The problem arises when another provision comes into the picture. According to the “hold-harmless” rule, states are not allowed to set aside more money for a poorly-performing school if it means having to cut back on other school district grants, reports the Washington Post. Because of this stipulation, numerous states have been finding it difficult to come up with sufficient money to help poorly performing schools while maintaining previous assistance levels to other school districts.
According to the GAO report, the “hold-harmless” provision has prevented 22 states from setting aside the required NCLB funds. Some states have made up differences by taking advantage of other federal and state funds, but not all have been able to do so successfully.
Insufficient funding is just one of many concerns cited by NCLB critics. Others have included a diminished focus on untested material and a decrease in attention paid to advanced students. High school seniors interested in voicing their opinions on the NCLB, both positive and negative, may do so by applying for the Scholarships.com 2008 Resolve to Evolve Scholarship. Seven applicants who submit the most thought-out and well-crafted responses will be awarded with scholarships ranging between $1,000 and $3,000. For additional information about this and other college scholarship and grants, students may conduct a free scholarship search.
March 28, 2008
Just two weeks ago, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings addressed the US House Committee on Education and Labor about its fear of a federal lending program meltdown. To the best of her ability, she tried to qualm the legislators' fears and to convince them that negative speculations were exaggerated. “More than 2,000 originating lenders participate in FFEL,” she said. “A small number of these lenders have reduced their participation or stopped originating new loans.”
However, the Department of Education’s request for Lender of Last Resort (LLR) preparation painted a somewhat different picture. In a letter sent to 35 guarantee agencies, the Financial Student Aid’s Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Warder laid out the basic LLR provisions and asked that the guarantee agencies quickly respond with plans for enacting the emergency program, should the need arise.
With lenders leaving the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program at increasing rates, both legislators and families have been feeling uneasy about college loan options. And while the department maintained that things were largely under control, the letters spoke for themselves.
The LLR provisions state that when a student eligible for federal aid is denied by at least two lenders, guarantee agencies and lenders who have signed agreements with them are responsible for awarding the loan. Being nonprofit entities, the guaranty agencies would use government funding to repay lenders for any student defaults.
To be certain that individuals have quick access to student loans, regardless of decisions made by cautious lenders, the department has asked that guaranty agencies submit their plans to put the LLR program in place. Among other things, they were asked to prepare a timeline for issuing LLR loans to students, provide a method for informing students about LLR eligibility and plan for meeting the increased administrative requirements. Recipients of the letter were given up to 30 days to respond with a new outline for their LLR program.
April 18, 2008
On Thursday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at halting the mass leave of student lenders from the federal loan program. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 50 lenders have left the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program to date. The growing departure has left families fearing that students will have no one to turn to for financial assistance once their Pell Grants and savings run dry.
To lessen the plight of FFEL lenders and students who depend on them for financial assistance, the bill would allow the Secretary of Education to purchase loans student lenders were not able to sell to investors. By pouring money into the loan market, the Department of Education would enable student lenders to use their capital for issuing new loans rather than paying out the original ones.
The new bill also addressed the lender of last resort, an emergency plan wherein guaranty agencies would be forced to lend money to students who were turned away by other lenders. Under the new plan, the Department of Education would have permission to advance funding to the agencies if need should arise.
To make the transition from the FFEL to the lender of last resort loan program easier on students, loans would be petitioned for on a college by college basis rather than a student by student one. Based on previous outlines of the untested program, students in need of a lender of last resort loan would have had to seek permission from the Department of Education and prove that at least two lenders had turned them down before receiving money.
A bill similar to the House version was introduced but not yet addressed by the Senate. Before the ideas are implemented, both the House and the Senate will have to iron out differences and send the final version to the president for approval.
April 22, 2008
To alleviate the affects of the intensifying credit crunch, Sallie Mae has been lobbying for government assistance. In past months, student lenders have been struggling to find buyers for both their loans and their loan securities. Sallie Mae, the largest student lender in the business, has turned to the government for assistance, asking that the US Treasury assuage loan market tensions by purchasing their securities.
In yesterday’s PBS Nightly Business Report, specialty finance analyst Sameer Gokhale and student loan expert Tom Stanton weighed in on the potential effects of such a move. According to Sameer Gokhale, a quick infusion of cash from the Treasury would, “help all of those lenders and ultimately result in a smoother flow of capital back into the student loan system.”
Tom Stanton took a different approach claiming that federal intervention was not yet necessary. “In its last year as a government sponsored enterprise, Sallie Mae made something like 73 percent return on equity, a very generous return. There’s no need at this point to go back to the government and get support,” he stated.
Even if student lenders continue to drop out of the government’s FFEL program and assistance such as that requested by Sallie Mae is not offered by the Treasury, students will have federal student aid resources to rely on. A Department of Education lender of last resort measure wherein the government would act as a lender to students denied loans by other lenders would prevent financial catastrophe, but according to the Nightly Business Report Correspondent Stephanie Dhue, resorting to such a plan would be more time consuming than enhancing funds for the one already in place.
The lender of last resort is yet untested, and, although details are being addressed by Congress, setting up the new program could be painstaking for schools. However, with the Chronicle of Higher Education citing more than fifty FFEL student lender departures, the program may be put into action regardless.
May 2, 2008
After passing the Senate and the House in varying formats, a compromise was reached on legislation that would help lenders stay afloat in a troublesome student loan market. The Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008 was sent to the President yesterday, and rapid approval is expected.
If signed into law, the bill would give the Secretary of Education the right to buy loans from struggling lenders, thus providing them the capital needed to offer new student loans. Worried that lenders may continue to depart from the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program—as fifty have already done—legislators have been scurrying to provide financial assistance before the school year begins. Though the law would only serve as a backup plan, the hope is that knowledge of a federal cushion would make both lenders and students more willing to engage in business.
To decrease student dependence on private lenders, ones generally offering loans options that are more expensive and less flexible than those offered by FFEL lenders, the maximum sum a student could borrow from the government was also increased. According to The Christian Science Monitor, the caps on unsubsidized loans available to students of any income level would increase by $2,000 for each school year. Dependent students would now be able to borrow up to $31,000 for their undergraduate education.
May 8, 2008
As expected, President Bush signed into law the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008. After receiving bipartisan support from the House and the Senate, the bill aimed at ensuring student loan availability was approved by the president.
Worried that the departure of student lenders from the FFEL Program could make student loans more difficult to obtain, legislators hurried to secure a backup plan. According to House Representative George Miller, “The bill carries no new cost for taxpayers.”
The Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008 indicates that:
o The limit on federal loans will soon increase. Students will be able to borrow $2,000 more to cover tuition and other costs.
o Parents will have more time to save for PLUS Loans. Rather than having to pay as soon as money is disbursed, they will have until six months after the child graduates before initial payments are due.
o Families slightly behind on their mortgages or medical bills may still be eligible for PLUS Loans.
o The Secretary of Education has the authority to advance federal funds to student lenders and guaranty agencies acting as lenders of last resort if the lenders run out of capital.
o Shall a lender of last resort plan be put into practice, guaranty agencies acting as lenders will have to abide by rules and restrictions similar to those governing FFEL lenders.
o Congress may call on the Federal Financing Bank to consider injecting money into the student loan market at no cost to the taxpayers.
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