Presidential Campaign Reps Outline Plans to Improve College Access and Affordability
Campaign representatives for President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney engaged in a lively policy discussion on federal student aid, college affordability, burdensome regulations and the federal budget at the opening session of the 2012 National NASFAA Conference Sunday.
Obama and Romney's campaign representatives debate federal student aid policy.
Outgoing NASFAA National Chair Pam Fowlers opened the session by highlighting NASFAA's recent work to influence student aid policy.
"We're working hard to bring our financial aid messages to policymakers in Washington, DC," she said.
The session was moderated by NASFAA President Justin Draeger who highlighted the recent, rapid rate of change in the student aid programs.
"By my count, we've seen seven pieces of legislation that impacted student aid and you've had to implement 375 pages of new regulations in the last two years," he said. Draeger noted that while this change is challenging, it also offers an opportunity to improve the programs. He invited aid administrators to share in a spirit of optimism for the months and years ahead as financial aid issues take the forefront of the national and political dialogue. "This is our time," Draeger said.
The discussion featured education policy advisors James Kvaal for Obama and Scott Fleming for Romney. Fleming is president and vice chairman of Madison Education Group, a private management consulting firm working exclusively in education. Before joining the Obama for America campaign as policy director, Kvaal served as Deputy Under Secretary at the Department of Education, where he focused on student aid and higher education policy, and as a special assistant to the president.
While Kvaal highlighted President Obama’s investments in higher education initiatives to improve consumer information and college affordability as well as his support for an increased maximum Pell Grant of $5,635 for the 2013-14 award year, Fleming focused on Romney’s goal to reduce burdensome regulations and strengthen private sector participation in loan servicing and the federal financial aid process.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find any president who’s responded more aggressively on the question of college affordability and college debt than this one has,” Kvaal said. “He’s doubled the investment in Pell Grants. He’s doubled the investment in tax credits for college. … He’s accelerated the implementation of the income-based repayment plan and made those terms more favorable.”
To illustrate Romney’ support for higher education, Fleming highlighted the Joan and Abigail Adams Scholarship that Romney implemented when he was governor to provide a free ride to students in the top 25 percent of standardized test scores in a school district.
Looking in the future, Fleming outlined Romney’s plan to centralize the Pell Grant program in Federal Student Aid.
“The challenge is obviously over the last couple of years, we’ve seen an enormous amount of federal spending with very little to show for it,” Fleming said. “You can strengthen Pell by eliminating some of the other programs.”
For example, Fleming cited the campus-based aid programs a part of Federal Student Aid that could be reevaluated.
“It does favor certain states over others,” he said. “There’s a degree of complexity and a degree of redundancy in federal financial aid programs that is not making it easier to administer financial aid and in a lot of ways is diverting costs to managing it at the federal level.”
On the issue of burdensome regulations, Fleming garnered some support from the audience. Fleming said he admired the President’s goal to vastly increase the number of college graduates the nation produces, but said “we are not making nearly enough progress for the amount of money we’re spending to get there.”
“Instead of tackling these issues head on, I think we’re seeing a Department of Education distracted by sideshows that are not helping to improve access for students at any level and are certainly not helping to improve the cost of education,” Fleming said. “How are we going to address these massive challenges that we have going into the future? Are we going to point the regulatory firing squad at the industry that’s trying to deal with these issues or can we turn that firing squad on itself and actually accomplish some of the deregulation that we started in the early 2000s.”
Kvaal noted that this is an area in which the federal government has a lot of work to do, but acknowledged that the Department of Education is making advances in simplifying processes with the help of technology, such as the simplification of the FAFSA.
“No one likes regulation, and I understand that,” Kvaal said. “The government does have some responsibility to ensure that these programs are serving the best interest of students and taxpayers and when new rules are necessary, we have a responsibility to impose them. There does need to be a balance because rules can be unnecessarily burdensome or punitive.”
Kvaal noted the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce burdensome regulations in the student loan negotiated rulemaking process and through changes to verification. He also noted the President’s executive order directing federal agencies to review all their respective regulations and conduct a cost-benefit analysis. He noted that the agencies have identified about $10 billion in burden reduction and that the U.S. Department of Education is part of that effort to reduce regulatory burden.
On the DREAM Act, Kvaal highlighted the President’s support for a plan that would provide a conditional path to citizenship for some children of undocumented immigrants. Fleming noted that for Romney, that decision should reside with states, not the federal government. He also said that Romney would be willing to discuss the DREAM Act, but only as part of a broader reform of immigration policy.
Both Kvaal and Fleming praised financial aid administrators for their commitment to helping students attain higher education.
“I think that the services financial aid administrators provide to students could not be done anywhere else,” Kvaal said. “It is a good reminder of why we’re in this business.”
Fleming noted that financial aid administrators have a unique knowledge and understanding that shouldn’t stop at the financial aid office.
“A lot of the members of Congress don’t deal with these types of issues day in and day out and they have a very limited understand of just how complex the federal financial aid system is and that’s an area where you can be very, very helpful,” Fleming said. “If I have any advice, it’s to take advantage of that voice.
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