Panel Calls for More Government Transparency on Path to College

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Donald Heller

Donald Heller of Michigan State recommends that students begin to learn about college-going and what it takes as early as middle school.

WASHINGTON — The federal government should do more to ensure that prospective college students and their families get better and more timely information about what it takes to get into college and how to pay for it.

That was the heart of a message delivered by a panel of experts Wednesday during a U.S. House subcommittee hearing titled “Keeping College Within Reach: Enhancing Transparency for Students, Families and Taxpayers.”

While there is an abundance of information on college-going available on the Internet, getting the right information to students remains a challenge, said Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University.

“And it is critical that we help prospective students to get the right information in their hands at the necessary times,” Heller told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training in recommending that students begin to learn about college-going and what it takes as early as middle school.

Lamenting the lack of good college counseling at the secondary level, Heller recommended that the federal government consider a “highly-targeted, federally-funded program to place more qualified college counselors in schools serving lower-income students.”

“Today, we have a higher proportion of students who aspired to attend college, and they are distributed among a broader set of high schools than in the past,” Heller said. “However, we have not provided access to good college counseling in the schools to many of these students who have historically been underrepresented in higher education, those predominantly from lower-income and racial minority families.”

Heller also suggested that the federal government partner with nonprofits, such as the National College Advising Corps—a program that places recent college graduates into high schools serving mostly low-income and first-generation college students—to get more counselors into schools.

Nicole Farmer Hurd, founder and executive director of the National College Advising Corps, said there is a gap between “what students think they know and what they need to know.”

“If you ask an eighth-grade class how many of them want to go to college, 100 percent of the hands will go up,” Hurd said. “And yet as the years go by, we lose these students.

“They do not understand financial aid or what classes to take. They are unaware of fee waivers, Pell Grants, and net price calculators.

“They do not know to look for graduation rates and how to make wise choices.”

Hurd called for universal adoption of the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet—a new tool unveiled by the Obama administration this year that is optional for colleges and universities to use to provide better information about the cost of college to students and families.

“Every institution should use this form,” Hurd said, adding that it enables students for the first time to make an “apples to apples” comparison and see things such as graduation rates, net costs, and the overall cost of their investment in higher education.

Travis Reindl, program director for the Education Division of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, said it’s important for individual students to be able to examine a particular institution’s completion rates by race, income and gender of students in order to better see if an institution has a good track record of serving students from their particular demographic.

He said the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act offers a “prime opportunity” for Congress to revise all federal dashboards, report cards and data tools for postsecondary education, including the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, to see if there are opportunities for streamlining or consolidation.

IPEDS has frequently been criticized in higher education because it does not count transfer students in its graduation rates for institutions.

At the outset of the hearing, U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) thanked Republicans for holding the hearing but criticized their proposed budget on higher education.

“By eliminating the mandatory funding elements of the Pell Grants program, shifting Pell to a program funded entirely by discretionary appropriations, rolling back Pell eligibility expansions for low-income students, freezing the maximum Pell Grant for 10 years, and allowing certain student loan interest rates to double on July 1, we must recognize that such a budget—were it ever to become law—would have a disproportionately negative impact on students,” Bishop said.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and chairwoman of the subcommittee criticized recent efforts by the Obama administration to improve transparency. For instance, she said, the administration’s new College Scorecard, which highlights key information about colleges and universities, has come under fire for using different methodologies to calculate data, “creating more confusion for students.”

“Clearly there are areas for improvement in higher education data,” Foxx said.

Foxx also stressed the need for personal accountability in getting information about the cost of college.

“If we spend hardworking taxpayer dollars, we deserve to get good outcomes for that,” Foxx said of existing government measures to improve transparency in college costs. “But there is something about personal responsibility that I think is getting lost in our country and it concerns me a great deal.

“It is as though the government has an answer for everything. And in some cases we’ve diminished the emphasis on personal responsibility for people and we expect people to be spoon-fed in some way.”

But, in some cases, taking personal responsibility can be unduly costly.

For instance, Hurd, of the National College Advising Corps, told the subcommittee of a family that was too proud to take a government loan because they viewed it as governmental support. So instead the family paid for higher education using a credit card with a high interest rate, she said, “not realizing that a credit card is a loan.”

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