TICAS vice president Pauline Abernathy served on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on September 19, 2012 . The event’s focus was on providing better information about earnings and outcomes for potential college students and their families, in the wake of increasing costs, rising student debt, and uncertainty about employment. Abernathy stressed the importance of meaningful disclosures that make sense for both students and schools, driving her points home with real-life examples.

Watch the video of Pauline illustrating ”meaningful disclosure”!


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In a victory for community college students, the Kern Community College District Trustees have postponed a vote on whether to do away with access to federal loans at Bakersfield College in California. For those who can’t otherwise afford to attend or finish school, federal student loans are the safest way to borrow.

Trustees had planned to vote on the issue yesterday, but after hearing from several concerned students, they decided to table the vote until late fall and convene a workgroup to learn more about student loans.  In making their decision, the trustees restated their commitment to promoting student success.

The Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC) recently urged all California community colleges to offer federal loans. The SSCCC, along with the California Community College Association of Student Trustees (CCCAST) and TICAS, also shared their concerns with the Kern District trustees in advance of yesterday’s meeting. Key among these concerns is that without access to federal loans, students who need to borrow must turn to riskier private loans, work excessive hours, drop courses or drop out altogether.

Today’s outcome is a great example of what can happen when students and citizens speak up about issues that concern them. We applaud the Kern trustees for seeking to better understand the issue and make the best decision for students.

While today’s development is good news for Bakersfield College students, the U.S. Department of Education can and should do more to support federal loan access at community colleges.  Colleges that pull out of the loan program often do so because they fear sanctions related to default rates.  In fact, colleges like Bakersfield College – where relatively few students borrow – are protected from these sanctions because of their low borrowing rate.

To support colleges making decisions based on fact rather than fear, it is critical that the Department:

  • urge the Bakersfield College trustees not to deny their students access to federal loans;
  • remind Bakersfield and other colleges with low borrowing rates about available appeals and clarify that they are at low risk of sanctions – or, as in Bakersfield’s case, no risk at all; and
  • highlight what colleges and servicers can do to prevent defaults and to improve their loan counseling and student success.

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On Saturday, June 30, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision in APSCU v. Arne Duncan et al which challenged the Department of Education’s gainful employment regulations. Those regulations apply to career education programs at public, nonprofit and for-profits colleges and were set to go into effect on July 1.

TICAS Vice President Pauline Abernathy issued the following statement in reaction to the ruling:

The Federal District Court decision issued this weekend leaves students and taxpayers exposed to unscrupulous schools that seek to swindle them and routinely saddle students with debts they cannot repay.

However, the court decision did affirm both the Education Department’s authority to enforce the gainful employment provisions in the law and the need to do so.  The court concluded that “The Department has set out to address a serious policy problem, regulating pursuant to a reasonable interpretation of its statutory authority….Concerned about inadequate programs and unscrupulous institutions, the Department has gone looking for rats in ratholes—as the statute empowers it to do.”

The court ruled that the Department did not provide adequate rationale for picking the 35% threshold for program repayment rates, leading it to vacate the entire rule as a result.  The decision faults the rationale for the 35% threshold, not the importance of the repayment rate measure, which effectively assesses the extent to which a program’s former students are able to pay down their loan principal.  Indeed, nearly two years ago, dozens of organizations advocating for students, consumers, higher education, civil rights and college access urged the Department to raise the repayment rate threshold, writing, “This standard is simply too low to demonstrate that programs are adequately preparing students for gainful employment.”

With student debt levels rising and 30 state attorneys general from both parties jointly investigating for-profit college industry practices, the need for action has never been more urgent.  To protect students and taxpayers, we call on the Administration to swiftly respond to this court decision and on Congress to promptly adopt bipartisan legislation that prohibits any school from using taxpayer dollars to advertise and recruit students and closes the “90-10 Rule” loophole that allows schools to count GI Bill funds and Department of Defense Tuition Assistance as private rather than federal dollars.


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We submitted this letter to the editor of the Sacramento Bee in response to a June 10, 2012 opinion piece:

In Sunday’s Bee, Student Aid Commission Chair Barry Keene cited our research on college affordability ("State can cut costs without harming aid for students") but, unfortunately, misstated our findings and drew conclusions our research does not support. While many more community college students do need to be applying for federal financial aid, overall there is far less aid available for community college students than for students at other types of colleges in the state. The solution is to increase community college students’ access to financial aid, not scale it back by virtually eliminating their already limited access to Cal Grants as Keene has very troublingly suggested.

Lauren Asher President The Institute for College Access & Success

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Most community college students don’t need to take out loans to cover college costs, but for those who do, federal student loans are the safest, most affordable form of borrowing. Unlike private loans or credit cards, federal loans come with several consumer protections including fixed interest rates, Income-Based Repayment, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.  Unfortunately, an increasing number of community colleges across the country are choosing not to offer federal loans to their students, and California stands out as the state with the greatest number of community college students – over 200,000 and growing – without access.

Too frequently, colleges make this decision based on inflated concerns about the risks of offering loans to students.  Colleges where too many borrowers default on their loans can lose eligibility to offer either loans or grants in future years, but colleges where very few students borrow in the first place – like virtually all the California Community Colleges (CCCs) – have special protections from these sanctions. (See our Cohort Default Rate Resources Page for more on what cohort default rates represent, why they matter, and individual college rates.) But many colleges – including Victor Valley College, the most recent CCC we know of to stop offering federal loans – don’t know about or understand these protections.  Given how much unmet need CCC students have, the fact that colleges are choosing to take important financing options away from students is distressing.

In recognition of the critical importance of access to federal loans, the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC) recently passed a resolution at its Spring 2012 General Assembly to strongly support CCC student access to federal loans and urge all CCCs to make federal loans available to their students. The California Community College Association of Student Trustees felt the issue was so important that the organization took the unprecedented step of signaling their support of the resolution in advance of the SSCCC vote.  We will continue to partner with these student groups to make sure that the colleges are listening to their students, and understand their low risk of sanctions, before making decisions that undermine college affordability and success.

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In January, California Governor Jerry Brown proposed a state budget that included $300 million in cuts to the state Cal Grant program, including greatly increasing the high school grades students must have to receive grants and cutting the maximum awards at private colleges.  His updated proposal released earlier today includes modest additional cuts, which we appreciate given the extent of the budget difficulties the state is facing.  Should cuts to Cal Grants be necessary, his stated priorities for the program – protecting affordability at public colleges, focusing assistance on the neediest students, and directing dollars to colleges where students are better served – are admirable and appropriate.  The limited new cuts he is proposing, to restrict Cal Grant awards to colleges where more students graduate (at least 30%) and fewer borrowers default (no more than 15%), are well aligned with these priorities, as are some but not all of the cuts originally proposed in January.

We are disappointed that the Governor retained his earlier proposal to cut student eligibility by substantially increasing the high school grades required for Cal Grants.  Our analysis has found that this cut would disproportionately affect African-American and Latino students, leave multiple years of high school students high and dry by changing the rules mid-game, and pressure students to choose between taking challenging coursework and getting financial aid for college.  The proposal’s effect on Cal Grant B awards in particular is so extreme that more than four in 10 currently eligible applicants would no longer get the grants they’ve been counting on for this fall.  Even the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which has previously raised questions about appropriate GPA requirements for Cal Grants, believes the Governor’s proposal is too harsh and abrupt.

Importantly, the Governor also proposed other major changes to the way Cal Grant eligibility and award levels are determined, although details are still forthcoming. (UPDATE: Here is the quick analysis we did once details of the Governor’s proposal became available.) While not technically cuts for the 2012-13 year, these changes have the potential to dramatically alter the course of the Cal Grant program.  Currently, Cal Grants are “all-or-nothing” grants, provided to students who fall below income and asset ceilings.  To understand what this means, consider a student from a family of four attending the University of California.  Whether her family income is $40,000 or $80,000, she gets a flat Cal Grant worth more than $13,000 – but nothing if her family income is $81,000.  Whether or not this is the most efficient and equitable way to deliver Cal Grant dollars, and whether there are alternatives worth considering, are reasonable policy questions.  However, these questions require more than a couple of weeks to address, as the answers could fundamentally change the structure of the program and how effectively it supports both access and success.  Hasty decisions could lead to harsh and unintended consequences for the state’s students and families for many years to come.

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Last week, the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance rejected, on a bipartisan vote, the Governor’s budget proposal to limit Cal Grant eligibility by raising minimum GPA thresholds. As we have discussed before, these changes would lock out more than a third of applicants now currently eligible for Cal Grants.  We applaud the Subcommittee for taking a strong stand in defense of financial aid, and sending a clear message that the state won’t get ahead by leaving students behind.

The committee vote was taken at a hearing in which TICAS Program Director Debbie Cochrane was invited to testify, and where she shared that the GPA proposal would disproportionately affect underrepresented students and cut off grant aid from students who can and do succeed in college.  Using new data obtained from the California Student Aid Commission and the state's public segments of higher education, we found that these cuts would hit African-American and Latino students particularly hard. Almost two-thirds of 2010-11 new Cal Grant recipients with GPAs below the proposed new thresholds at public colleges are African American or Latino. Our testimony also documents that Cal Grant students – including those with GPAs below the proposed new thresholds – are succeeding in college, outperforming other community college students in persistence and ability to earn 30 units, and graduating at about the same rate as other students at CSU and UC.

While the committee’s action is a welcome sign, these proposals – and other harmful cuts to Cal Grants – will continue to be debated throughout the next few months. We will continue to analyze and communicate the effects of this and other Cal Grant proposals, as well as the importance of investing in need-based financial aid, as the process moves forward.

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Consumers, policymakers, and researchers all need user-friendly access to meaningful financial aid data – data that can deepen our understanding of important issues and inform decision-making at all levels. A recent report from the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) provides important, actionable suggestions for how to improve federal data on this topic.

The report presents the findings and recommendations of NPEC’s Working Group on Financial Aid Data, chaired by Matthew Reed of TICAS. The group brought together leading financial aid researchers and practitioners as well as representatives of all sectors of higher education and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Here’s the TICAS take on some particularly important suggestions:

Adopt common identifiers for colleges across all data sets. Different agencies within the U.S. Department of Education use different codes used to identify colleges and branch campuses. In addition, some track data for each campus, while others group related campuses together. This makes it difficult to bring together data on financial aid, enrollment, and student success from different sources to look at a variety of student outcomes at the college level. It can also lead to incomplete or misleading information for consumers. For example, a student using the FAFSA to apply for aid at the University of Phoenix will only see tuition and fees, net price, and graduation rates for one specific campus in Arizona, where less than two percent of the university’s students attend. Until common identifiers are established, the Department should provide tools to help researchers connect the different data sets.

Collect and disseminate college-level data on debt at graduation and private (non-federal) loans. As student debt levels continue to rise, both consumers and policymakers need timely information about student borrowing. Prospective students should be able to see average debt at graduation for whatever colleges they are considering, not just those that happen to report it voluntarily. In addition, borrowers and colleges should be able to see all of a student’s loans, federal and private, in one place.

As TICAS has long recommended, the NPEC report suggests that the Department make incremental changes its annual survey of colleges to collect information on cumulative debt and on private loan borrowing for all undergraduates. We have also long called for the Department to track private as well as federal student loans in its student loan database, which is ultimately the best way to provide accurate and comprehensive data on these topics. TICAS continues to urge the Department of Education to make these short-term and long-term changes, including working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to ensure the collection of comprehensive private loan data from lenders.

Provide more detailed loan volume data. Currently, the available college-level data on federal loan usage makes it very difficult to estimate the number of undergraduates using federal student loans at each college, their use of unsubsidized versus subsidized Stafford loans, or the average amount they borrowed. As the report recommends, providing separate figures for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as for all Stafford recipients, would paint a much clearer picture of federal loan borrowing patterns.

Improve access to and analysis of data already in the federal student loan database. The Department’s student loan database contains a wealth of information about financial aid, but it is currently underutilized. The legislation authorizing this database directs the Department to use it in part for research and policy analysis, but it has only done so on a very limited basis. The report recommends increased collaboration between the operational and analytical agencies within the Department so that more data are analyzed and made publicly available, enhancing understanding of student borrowing patterns and informing better decision-making at all levels.

We encourage those interested in financial aid data and trends to read the report and share any feedback with Archie Cubarrubia of the Department of Education.

For examples of existing data on financial aid as well as other affordability and diversity information at the college, state, and national levels, visit College InSight.

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Published: Sunday, February 05, 2012

Sheryl Harris, The Plain Dealer 

CLEVELAND Ohio -- Parents planning to send a child off to college may experience a bit of sticker shock.
Students at four-year colleges nationwide paid an average $21,600 for the 2010-2011 academic year – roughly 2½ times more than their parents might have spent when they were in school.
Federal and state governments and universities continue to grapple with soaring tuition, but in the meantime, families can find practical tools – some new – for understanding and corralling college costs.
One of those is the net price calculator, which the U.S. Department of Education ordered colleges to post on their websites last October. The calculators give students a ballpark estimate of what they'll spend to attend a particular school.
"Tuition and fees understate the whole cost of attendance," said Lauren Asher of The Institute for College Access and Success. "The full cost of attendance is tuition and fees, housing and food, books and supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous."
Net price is the cost of attending a school (tuition, board, the works) minus aid that similar students received in the previous year. Similarities are based on things like test scores and family income.
The calculators have quirks, but as Asher puts it, they can give students a better and earlier estimate of what they'll need to save, borrow or earn to attend a particular school.
"It might show you your dream school is more affordable than you thought, or less," Asher said. "Or that the school you assumed was cheaper because of the sticker price actually isn't."
Another useful tool is the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet that the Department of Education and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are collaborating on. Their goal is to make financial aid letters – the offers schools send after a student is accepted – easier to read. Right now schools use different terms to describe the same things, which makes it tough for families to compare offers. And some schools don't clearly distinguish between gift aid and loans.
"Schools lump them together," said Asher. "You think you have this great big aid package and zero cost at the end, and in fact, what you're really looking at is $20-30,000 in loans, plus some work-study assumptions."
Although the shopping sheet is still in the draft stage, families can use it as a roadmap to make sure they ask schools the right questions about financial aid offers.
On the state level, students looking to save money may consider starting at less expensive community colleges to earn credits they can later transfer to one of the state's public four-year colleges.
"It counts toward your degree, so you don't lose time, you don't lose money," said Kim Norris, spokeswoman for the Ohio Board of Regents. Students planning to switch should check with both schools to make sure credits will transfer. (Or, try the Regents' clunky credit transfer site.
Also in the category of saving money by saving time, by year's end, the state's public universities will begin rolling out three-year bachelor's degrees as an option in certain programs.
And although it's too late for 2012 seniors, Norris notes that high school students can slice college costs significantly by taking advanced placement or community college classes in high school to earn college credit – at no cost to students.
Experts shared these tips, tools and strategies for prospective freshmen:
Fill out the FAFSA
Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a tedious chore. The form is long. It's nosy. But, financial aid experts say, it is vital.
Students can qualify for low-cost federal student loans regardless of their income -- but only if they first fill this form. Plus, many schools use the FAFSA as a jumping-off point for awarding school-based aid.

Use net price calculators

These online calculators can give students a good estimate of how much it will cost them to attend a particular school before they spend money to apply.

Students won't know the exact price until they're accepted and get a financial aid letter from the school, but the calculators provide an early reality check. Calculators are still being tweaked, and some schools hide them.

  • See TICAS' tips for finding and using net price calculators

Understand financial aid letters

Students won't know exactly how much it will cost them to attend a school until they're accepted and get a financial aid letter from a college.

Use the draft Financial Aid Shopping Sheet as a guide for breaking down the information and comparing aid offers.

  • Find's helpful guide to decoding financial aid letters

Target your borrowing

Students should always exhaust their federal student loan options before taking out private student loans, which are more expensive and less flexible for borrowers who run into trouble.

Currently, undergraduate students can borrow between $5,000 and $12,500 a year in federal student loans, depending on various factors. Interest rates are reset every July.

Asher encourages parents to consider federal fixed-rate PLUS loans before a student takes on a private loan.

On any loan, borrowers should understand the interest rate, whether it's fixed or variable, whether interest accrues while the borrower is in school, what the balance and loan payment will be when the student graduates, when payments start and under what circumstances the payment could increase.

Students loans usually don't have to be repaid until graduation, but if interest accrues while the student is in school, borrowers can hold down the balance by making even a few payments before graduation.

Co-signers should understand they can be held liable for repaying the loan if the borrower fails to make payments.

  • Find important information on federal student loans (including eligibility limits and parent loans) and how they differ from private loans from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Get advice for borrowers from TICAS' Project on Student Debt.
  • Find a student loan repayment calculator.
Hunt down scholarships
National scholarship competitions can be fairly competitive, but you can search scholarships for free at Steer clear of scholarships that require money to apply – they're likely scams. And never give away private information, like your Social Security or bank account number.
Students may have a better shot at winning local scholarships, because there's less competition.
  • In Cuyahoga County, get help finding local scholarships and free one-on-one financial aid counseling at the nonprofit College Now Greater Cleveland. The walk-in resource center helps Cuyahoga County students of any age. The walk-in resource center is at 200 Public Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and open on Saturdays by appointment. Call 216-241-5587, Ext. 140.
  • Find similar organizations across Ohio at or contact the Ohio Board of Regents (1-800-233-6734).
Other helpful resources:
  • -- Information from the U.S. Department of Education about paying for college including links to the FAFSA form and information about eligibility. Or call 1-800-433-3243.
  • -- The National Center for Education Statistics site has a database of colleges searchable by price, type, location and area of study.
  • NAFSAA's tips on cutting college costs, being a smart consumer and to loan repayment tips.
  • or 1-800-233-6734  The Ohio Board of Regents' clearinghouse for prospective students with questions about attending or paying for college

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Some community colleges and for-profit colleges have expressed concerns that their students borrow more than they really need in federal loans. We looked into available data and found no evidence that “over-borrowing” is a problem at either community colleges or for-profit colleges. Read our fact sheets dispelling the “over-borrowing” myth at community colleges and for-profit colleges.  

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