News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 29,  Number 3   //    May/June 2021

Secretary of Education Cancels Debt for Students Defrauded by Colleges

The U.S. Department of Education announced on March 18 its decision to cancel federal loans for 72,000 students defrauded or misled by predatory for-profit colleges and universities. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s push for total debt forgiveness ends former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ policies that granted partial debt forgiveness even if borrowers had clearly been defrauded.

This is Cardona’s first major higher education decision since his confirmation. “Borrowers deserve a simplified and fair path to relief when they have been harmed by their institution’s misconduct,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “A close review of these claims and the associated evidence showed these borrowers have been harmed and we will grant them a fresh start from their debt.”

The $1 billion debt relief will be granted to borrowers with claims approved to date under the Borrower Defense to Repayment program. It does not erase the debts of 128,000 borrowers who filed claims in the last six years, borrowers previously denied by the DOE, and those currently awaiting a decision on their claims.

Higher education experts like Toby Merrill, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, hope Cardona’s announcement is the first of several rollbacks to DeVos administration policies. “Abandoning partial relief is a strong start for a narrow subset of borrowers, but what we need from the Education Department is an overhaul of the current borrower defense process,” said Merrill in a March 18 statement. He urges the Biden-Harris administration to address the DOE’s failings “or else perpetuate a system that is stacked against the very students they are supposed to protect.”

A New Report Shows Power Gap Among Top Earners at Elite Research Universities 

The Eos Foundation, a private philanthropic organization, released The Power Gap Among Top Earners at America’s Elite Universities report to measure the power distribution on university campuses. It concludes women, especially women of color, are frequently absent among top earners at R1 institutions despite no shortages of women working in higher education.

The Power Gap Among Top Earners at America’s Elite Universities is the latest publicly available data that examines more than 2,000 of the highest paid employees at 130 institutions listed as R1: Doctoral Universities in the Carnegie Classification. The dataset is separated into three categories: Core employees (mainly presidents, deans, provosts, and faculty); medical center employees (excluding chief executives and medical school deans); and employees within the athletic department.

The first key finding is that less than a quarter of top earners at R1 institutions are women. Women account for only 24 percent of the highest-paid core employees, 12 percent of medical employees, and 7 percent of athletic employees. Researchers found this “particularly worrisome given the fact that women are 60 percent of all professionals in higher education and have been receiving the majority of master’s and doctoral degrees for several decades.”

The second key finding centers on an analysis of the data by gender, race, and ethnicity. The report found that “women of color are virtually nonexistent among top earners.” White women were 22.2 percent of the top earners whereas 0.6 percent were Asian women, 0.8 percent were Black women, and 0.8 percent were Hispanic women.

The third key finding is that faculty and deans in traditionally male-dominated disciplines (STEM and business fields) receive the highest pay. To achieve gender and racial parity among faculty pay, the report states colleges and universities must stop devaluing “fields that traditionally have women and underrepresented minorities.”

Lastly, the fourth key finding is that there is a lack of gender and racial data transparency, which impedes accountability and progress within higher education institutions. Public and private universities are not required “to provide diversity data with respect to compensation.” Researchers found this disconcerting because without baseline data “there is no pressure on individual schools to set benchmarks, track progress, and report on progress to the public” regarding diversity data.

The Eos Foundation’s report is part of its larger Women’s Power Gap Initiative aimed at increasing the number of diverse women in C-suite positions nationally, including higher education. Eos Foundation President Andrea Silbert and the American Association of University Women CEO Kimberly Churches hope this report “launches a positive public dialogue among leaders in higher education” and encourages colleges and universities to rebuild themselves “intentionally, with gender and racial justice at the center.”

House Passes H.R.6, American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 

On March 19, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 228 to 197 in favor of H.R.6, The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021. Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard of California sponsored the bill, which “provides certain aliens with a path to receive permanent resident status and contains other immigration-related provisions.”

The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 aims to provide a pathway to citizenship and permanent residency for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children. It also plans to extend protection to immigrants with Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). H.R.6 would repeal “a restriction that bars a state from providing higher education benefits to undocumented aliens unless those benefits are available to all U.S. nationals without regard to residency in the state.”

In a March 18 statement, President Biden praised the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 as a “first critical step in reforming our immigration system.” The bill would be a major Democratic victory if passed by both houses of Congress, but it is expected to stall in the Senate if it does not receive unanimous support from Democrats and at least 60 Republican votes.

Students Receive Additional SNAP Benefits and Assistance Through HEERF Grant Program

On March 19, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced its plans to expand the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grant program and the eligibility criteria for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Prior to the announcement, the DOE only allowed funds from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) to be used for costs incurred after the enactment of CRRSAA.

The revised guidance instructs grantees how to calculate and charge “lost revenue” to their HEERF awards. It is the DOE’s hope that this updated guidance will emphasize support for students with exceptional needs, empower institutions to discharge student debts, and grant college leaders flexibility when using HEERF grant funds. “One of my first priorities is to ensure that institutions of higher education have the financial support and resources needed to support their students and mitigate the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 emergency,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a March 19 statement.

As of March 19, the DOE began contacting students who meet SNAP’s temporarily expanded eligibility criteria. Under regular SNAP eligibility guidelines, students must be enrolled at least half-time. The expanded criteria includes students who are eligible to participate in government-funded work-study programs during the regular academic year and students who have an expected family contribution of zero in the current academic year. The DOE plans to end these expansions 30 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted. Cardona hopes “every eligible student takes advantage of these benefits while continuing to focus on their studies.”

ACCT Paper Details the Challenges of Rural Community Colleges 

On March 16, the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) published Strengthening Community Colleges: Innovations and Opportunities. ACCT conducted interviews with 500 individuals working as trustees, presidents, faculty, and staff in 70 rural colleges across five states. The paper identifies the three top challenges facing rural community colleges today: proper access to broadband Internet, funding difficulties at the state and local level, and satisfying the demand for student mental health services.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced rural community colleges to quickly pivot to remote learning without the infrastructure to smoothly transition. The report stated, “rural Americans across the country are 15 times more likely to lack broadband access than those living in urban or suburban areas.” Federal grant programs and partnerships with private Internet service providers often fall short in their goals. If long-term broadband investment is not made within rural community colleges, then students will continue to fall short of their educational attainment goals.

Funding disparities at the state and local level continually challenges rural community colleges. Institutions are expected to stretch finite dollars to satisfy their ever-increasing community needs. At the local level, shrinking populations and declining tax bases further exacerbate the issue.

“We’re tired of being scrappy; we want to invest in the good work we’re already doing,” noted Jennifer Lindon, president of Hazard Community and Technical College, in the report.

At the state level, community colleges are chronically underfunded. On average, four-year public institutions receive nearly double the state funding that rural, urban, and suburban community colleges receive.

The disparities in mental health services between rural community colleges and nonrural community colleges are stark. A 2016 study funded by ACCT that concluded “less than half of community college students who were experiencing mental health needs were receiving supportive services.” Access to mental health services has notably worsened during the pandemic. Even when numerous rural college board members hoped to expand mental health services, they had trouble creating sustainable programs with little funding and few provider options available in their communities.

While there is no singular solution to fix these multifaceted problems, ACCT provides recommendations for strengthening rural community colleges. Partnerships between community colleges as well as partnerships with private businesses enables institutions to offer students access to a variety of programs and supports rural economic development. Funding new initiatives at the state and federal levels and strengthening existing programs may also better serve students in need. Regarding broadband access, redefining broadband as a public utility or legalizing municipal broadband can make broadband more accessible and affordable for rural communities.

Tackling these challenges is critical for the future success of rural community colleges. “Community and technical colleges are central to their communities, and perhaps especially so in rural parts of the country,” said ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown.

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