A last-minute addition to legislation Congress enacted in February to trim the federal deficit provides what could turn out to be a significant new headache for college and university financial aid administrators.
In addition to $12.7 billion in student loan cuts that lawmakers agreed to earlier, the measure-the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005-establishes a new program of academic competitiveness grants. To begin July 1 this year and expire at the end of the 2010-2011 academic year, it will kick off without any rules, regulations, or other guidance as to how it should actually work.
The program provides grants to low-income, full-time college students who are U.S. citizens, eligible for a Pell Grant, and meet federally specified criteria regarding academic performance. Because it is an entitlement program, students will be certain to get the funding.
As explained by American Council on Education (ACE) President David Ward in a letter to other postsecondary association presidents in Washington, a grant earned in either the first or second year of college will be known as an "Academic Competitiveness Grant." An award in the third or fourth year, meanwhile, will be called a "National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant," or "National SMART Grant."
Students enrolled for the first time in their first year of college, or who have been accepted for enrollment, and who have successfully completed "a rigorous secondary school program of study established by a state or local education agency and recognized as such by the Secretary" of Education, will receive a $750 grant.
Students in their second academic year who completed the rigorous secondary school program and achieved a 3.0 grade point average in their first year of college will receive a $1,300 grant.
Students in their third or fourth year of an academic program majoring in math, science, technology, engineering, or a foreign language that is "critical to national security" who have earned a 3.0 grade point average will receive an annual grant of $4,000.
Undefined so far, however, is how the program will work in practice. Unanswered questions include: how grade-point averages and major fields of study will be factored into the Pell Grant process; whether students who attend college part-time one term and full-time the next will be eligible for a grant; and how students will be treated at colleges that do not calculate grade-point averages. Also unclear is what foreign languages will qualify as "critical to national security."
A key issue for secondary school administrators is what a "rigorous" program of study will be or what will be required so that the U.S. Education Secretary, currently Margaret Spellings, will recognize it.
Answers to these questions usually are provided in a formal rule-making process that federal agencies conduct to implement new legislation. That will come later, but Yvonne Smith, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, says the agency will not have time to do it before the program begins on July 1.
Meanwhile, the law creating the initiative provides few details to guide implementation and "there is almost no legislative history to help the department write the regulations necessary to turn the statute into an operational program," Ward wrote to the other association presidents.
Reacting quickly to concerns about possible federal involvement in setting high school curricula, House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, wrote to Spellings in February to make clear that the measure preserves the role of state and local authorities in making decisions about curricula. They also said that students attending private, charter, or home schools could be eligible for grants.
No one has criticized the objectives of the program. "The interest in encouraging more students-especially low-income students-to take rigorous courses in high school is clear and unambiguous. So is the desirability of encouraging more American-born students to major in math, science, and engineering," said Ward. President George W. Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, proposed increased funding for scientific research, math, and science preparation for high school students.
The new grant program is "an important and welcome development. The central concern is that it is hard to imagine a more complicated way to go about it," says Terry Hartle, ACE's senior vice president for Government and Public Affairs. "It's the most complicated challenge to implement a new program that I have seen in 25 years. This is going to be a wonderful case study in public administration."
Ward pointed out that on the plus side, the measure uses a small portion of the student loan cuts, estimated at $790 million, to create new grants for math, science, and foreign language majors; reduce loan origination fees; increase borrowing limits; and improve the need-analysis system. However, he wrote, "these provisions are far too small, and in the case of one of the grant programs, far too complex and restrictive to offset the damaging consequences of the cuts to student loans."
Many Washington education advocates, caught by surprise, are troubled by how the program got into the 774-page deficit reduction bill in the first place. Legislative leaders in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, working with Bush administration officials, "made a decision in the dead of the night, with no discussion, no hearings, not even a separate bill being introduced," says Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Even Democratic lawmakers claim they had no time to react to the program. "We didn't see the full text of it until the morning of the vote. There's a way you do these things and it's not by slipping something into the bill at the last minute," says Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
As the Department of Education begins trying to figure out how to make the new program work, higher ed organizations in Washington are preparing to provide input. "We have indicated to department staff that we stand ready to work with them to implement the program as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, for all the reasons stated above, we think the task ahead is formidable," Ward asserted.
Meanwhile, a week after Congress enacted the legislation containing the new program, Boehner gave up the chairmanship of the House Education Committee when House Republicans elected him to succeed indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as majority leader.
They elected Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.) to take Boehner's place as Education Committee chairman. McKeon has served on the committee since 1993, chairing its Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness since 1995.
Alan Dessoff is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.