Quick Thoughts on the Ryan Higher Education Budget Discussion Draft

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a proposal called Expanding Opportunity in America this morning, which covered topics including social benefits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, education, criminal justice, and regulatory reform. My focus is on the higher education section, starting on page 44.

First of all, I’m glad to see a discussion of targeting federal funds right at the start of the higher education section. Ryan notes concerns about subsidies going to students who don’t need them (such as education tax credits going to households making up to $180,000 per year) and the large socioeconomic gaps in college completion. This is important to note for both economic efficiency and targeting middle-income voters.

The policy points are below:

  • Simplify the FAFSA. Most policymakers like this idea at this point, but the question is how to do so. The document doesn’t specify how it should be simplified, or if it should go as far as the Alexander/Bennet proposal to knock the FAFSA back to two questions. Ryan supports getting information about aid available to students in eighth grade and using tax data from two years ago (“prior prior year”) to determine aid eligibility, both of which make great sense. I’ve written papers on both early aid commitment and prior prior year.
  • Reform and modernize the Pell program. Ryan is concerned about the fiscal health of the Pell program and is looking for ways to shore up its finances. He raises the idea of using the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG)—a Pell supplement distributed by campuses—to help fund Pell. I’ve written a paper about how SEOG and work-study allocations benefit very expensive private colleges over colleges that actually serve Pell recipients. It’s a great idea to consider, but parts of One Dupont just may object. Ryan also suggests allowing students to use their Pell funds however they want (effectively restoring the summer Pell Grant), something which much of the higher education community supports.
  • Cap federal loans to graduate students and parents. This will prove to be a controversial recommendation, with the possibility of interesting political bedfellows. While many are concerned about rising debt and the fiscal implications, there are different solutions. The Obama Administration has instead proposed capping forgiveness at $57,500, while letting students borrow more. I’m conflicted as to what the better path is. Is it better to shift students to the private loan market to get any additional funds, or should they get loans with lower interest rates through the federal government that may result in a fiscal train wreck if loan forgiveness isn’t capped? The Ryan proposal has the potential to help slow the growth in college costs, but potentially at the expense of some students’ goals.
  • Consider reforms to the TRIO programs. TRIO programs serve low-income, first-generation families, but Ryan notes that there isn’t a lot of evidence supporting these programs. I admittedly don’t know as much about TRIO as I should, but I like the call for additional research before judging their effectiveness.
  • Expand funding for federal Work-Study programs. The proposal increases work-study funds through allowing colleges to keep expiring Perkins Loans funds instead of returning them to the federal government. This is the wrong way to proceed because Perkins allocations (and current work-study allocations) are also correlated with the cost of attendance. I would rather see a redistribution of work-study funds based on Pell Grant receipt instead of by cost of attendance, as I’ve noted previously.
  • Build stronger partnerships with post-secondary institutions. Most of this is empty platitudes toward colleges, but the last sentence is critical: “Colleges should also have skin in the game, to further encourage their commitment to outcome-based learning.” There seems to be some support on both sides of the aisle for holding institutions accountable for their performance through methods such as partial responsibility for loan defaults, tying financial aid to outcomes, or college ratings, but an agreement looks less likely at this point.
  • Reform the accreditation process. Ryan supports Senator Lee (R-UT)’s proposal to allow accreditors to certify particular courses instead of degree programs. This is a good idea in general, but the political landscape gets much trickier due to the existence of MOOCs, for-profit colleges (and course providers), and the power of the current higher education lobby. I’ll be interested to see how this moves forward.

Overall, the tenets of the proposal seem reasonable and some parts are likely to get bipartisan support. The biggest questions remaining are whether the Senate will be okay with the House passing Higher Education Act reauthorization components piecemeal (as they are currently doing) and what funding levels will look like for particular programs. In any case, these ideas should generate useful discussions in policy and academic circles.

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About Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.
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