Why the link between CDRs and Pell Grants is good for students

When too many borrowers default on their student loans, colleges can lose eligibility for federal aid. Colleges with a cohort default rate (CDR) above 40% lose eligibility to offer federal loans, and colleges with three consecutive CDRs at or above 30% lose eligibility to offer both loans and federal Pell Grants.

While some question the wisdom of tying colleges’ eligibility for federal grants to the outcomes of students who borrow federal loans, the link between Pell Grants and CDRs is incredibly important. That’s because federal taxpayers invest tens of billions of dollars in Pell Grants, and CDRs are the primary means of assessing whether colleges are a good investment for federal aid. Colleges can already avoid sanctions through challenges and appeals when relatively few of their students borrow.

To avoid losing access to Pell Grants, the most common form of financial aid for community college students, many schools are examining what they can do to help students avoid default. However, other colleges are citing fears of such sanctions for their decision to stop offering federal loans altogether - even schools that are at very low risk of sanctions. Cutting off access to federal student loans in this way is a problem because it forces students who can’t otherwise afford to stay in school to turn to much riskier types of borrowing, or to reduce their odds of completion by cutting back on classes, working long hours, or dropping out altogether.

Concerns about CDR sanctions have led some to argue that colleges’ eligibility for federal grants should not be tied to an outcome measure for federal loans, and that delinking grants from CDR sanctions might stop colleges from pulling out of the federal loan program. But if the goal is to ensure students are well served and have access to federal loans when they need them, then the logic behind arguments to delink Pell and CDR sanctions falls short on multiple fronts.

  • It wrongly presumes that default rates are entirely out of colleges’ control. In reality, colleges have a number of tools to prevent defaults and keep CDRs within acceptable levels. Given the severe consequences for each individual student who defaults, it’s imperative that colleges use every tool in their toolbox to keep borrowers on track. But as the New York Times recently editorialized, “[W]hat is likely to persuade colleges to deploy these tools in the first place is the threat of losing federal aid if they do not.” Indeed, the threat of losing eligibility for Pell Grants is focusing colleges on what more than can do to keep their students out of default.
  • With no incentive for colleges to keep students out of default, they will invest less in default prevention. This is not a statement about the character of student services professionals at community colleges, but rather about the obstacles they will face when trying to convince college leaders how scarce (and decreasing) resources should be spent. And when loan defaults increase as a result, the college will lose eligibility to offer loans.  So while colleges may be less likely to pull out of the loan program proactively if Pell and CDR sanctions are delinked, they will be more likely to be forced out of the loan program based on their default rate. The threat of losing federal loan eligibility is not going to be enough of an incentive for colleges to focus on keeping defaults down if they’re already considering opting out of the loan program. The end results? First, more community college students in default, and then far more without any access to federal student loans.

The upshot: delinking Pell and CDR sanctions will not help students.  Most community college students do not borrow federal loans. But students who do need to borrow should have access to federal loans, and it’s entirely appropriate to hold colleges deemed worthy of taxpayer investment by the federal government accountable.

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