Washington -- Congress has passed the Cromnibus (The Continuing Resolution plus Omnibus appropriations act), to much disdain from those who know the wretched provisions in it. A sleight-of-hand move of higher education money in the bill is perfectly described in a news headline: "Tom Harkin Wants To Take Money From College Students to Pay Reviled Loan Contractors."
Advocates for financially needy students have heaped abuse on Senator Harkin for this. I couldn't agree more that this is a bad provision. But on reflection, two things bother me even more than what this provision will do.
First, Senator Harkin has long been a champion of protecting the interests of financially needy students. This must be taken into account. He has often stood alone, courageously taking on the for-profit schools that have misused federal tax dollars and ruined the lives of countless cynically exploited students and their families. He has done this in the face of many of his Congressional colleagues who take campaign contributions from this unverschämt industry; these contributions are almost totally recycled federal tax dollars. He has also made accrediting bodies do their job, through his Senate hearings that publicly shamed them. We are all in his debt for this work. Thank you, Senator Harkin.
Second, some of those jumping on the bandwagon of criticism of this provision have little or no moral high ground from which to object, however odious the shift of funding may be. The American Council on Education wrote this about Harkin's taking some $300 million from a Pell grant surplus account for the benefit of loan collectors:
[W]e oppose any efforts to weaken this proven, successful program by depleting the current surplus. With Pell Grants projected to return to significant shortfalls in the near future, stripping existing funding will needlessly endanger the near-term health and stability of the program. Congress has cut federal financial aid repeatedly over the last few years. Benefits have been eliminated, and students are paying more for their federal student loans. Students cannot afford to continue subsidizing other areas of the budget. We urge you to support America’s students and reject any proposals that would weaken the Pell Grant Program.
This is hypocrisy. If anyone has weakened the Pell program over the years, it is much of the membership of ACE. Many colleges and universities, by manipulating their own institutional aid, routinely repackage Pell grants, taking financial aid away from low income students that the program is supposed to help, thereby capturing the funds for other purposes. This amounts to billions of dollars annually, many times over the amount at issue in the Cromnibus act. Are students being forced to subsidize other areas of the budget, as ACE claims? Yes, indeed. But it is the ACE membership itself that is a far greater culprit than the Harkin provision, when one looks at the shifting of subsidies within college budgets. Are students being required to take out more student loans? Yes, but ACE needs to look in the mirror as to who is behind this.
Moreover, ACE has been noticably absent from helping with any of the heavy lifting involved in curtailing for-profit school abuses and reforming accreditation. They have let others do the work and take the heat.
And why does ACE continue to use the word "proven" with regard to Pell grants? Because repeating it over and over will make it so? It will not; the program has never been rigorously evaluated by the Department of Education. Many attempts by economists and others, over decades, have failed to conclude that the program is the success often claimed. No one wishes more than I do that these studies are wrong, but the evidence just isn't there to back up the claims for the program. Finally, ACE, of all organizations, should be more careful with its use of language. Sloppy use of the the word proven is often evidence that the user does not understand the philosophy and methods of science. This should be beneath the nation's leading higher education association.