White House announces new financial aid initiatives

By Emma Kinery, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 11, 2015

Following several announcements earlier this year, President Barack Obama again addressed higher-education policy in a speech Tuesday at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The president announced a presidential memorandum he signed earlier that morning, which he called a Student Aid Bill of Rights, that will direct the U.S. Department of Education to increase support for students to repay their student loans.

In a White House conference call with college reporters Wednesday, the president said the creation of the Student Aid Bill of Rights would help alleviate concerns over how much of an impact could be made on education at the federal level.

“We’re continuing to just chip away at this problem — there’s no silver bullet,” Obama said Wednesday. “We’re going to have to do things at the federal level, the state level and the university level to really mobilize the entire country around the issue of college affordability.”

The Student Aid Bill of Rights reads as follows:

“Every student deserves access to a quality, affordable education at a college that’s cutting costs and increasing learning.
Every student should be able to access the resources needed to pay for college.
Every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan.
And, every borrower has the right to quality customer service, reliable information and fair treatment, even if they struggle to repay their loans.”

In support of the Bill of Rights, the memorandum is also meant to create policy solutions that will provide support for students repaying loan debt, Obama said. According to a White House report, more than 70 percent of today’s bachelor degree graduates leave with a debt, which is on average $28,400.

In the state of Michigan, there are currently 1,516,000 student borrowers with about $40.1 billion in outstanding student loans.

“I believe that America is not a place where higher education is a privilege that is reserved for the few,” Obama said Tuesday in Georgia. “America needs to be a place where higher education has to be available for every single person who’s willing to strive for it, who’s willing to work for it.”

During his speech, the president outlined three major components of his program: creating a “responsive” student feedback system, promoting more affordable monthly payments and better meeting the needs of student borrowers.

Under the memorandum, by July 1, 2016, the Department of Education is charged with creating a website for students to file complaints and feedback on federal student loan lenders, servicers, collections agencies, universities and colleges.

The system aims to improve the timeliness of the Department of Education’s response to student borrowers. The president also said he wants to work with the Department of Education to study better responses to potential illegal activity pertaining both to loan regulation, and to how colleges and universities market themselves to students.

Other components of the memorandum include ensuring that borrowers are able to meet their monthly loan payments. To achieve that objective, the government will work to increase transparency in the student loan process by informing borrowers when their loans are transferred to a different service, as well as informing borrowers when they lag in their payments or do not complete applications to adjust their payment plans.

Additionally, the memorandum calls for the creation of “centralized point of access” to help students pay back federal student loans, as well as requirements for loan providers to allow students to pay back loans with the highest interest rate.

During Wednesday’s conference call, Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, detailed the thinking behind providing these “centralized point of access.”

“One is an integrated complaint system, where we want borrowers to be able to report to us on difficulties that they are having. That will help us resolve difficulties better and understand better how our servicers are performing,” Duncan said. “The other is an integrated database that will allow borrowers, in one spot, to look at the balances of all of their student loans, and begin there to make choices how to allocate payments among those loans.”

The president also announced several partnerships to create programs aimed at facilitating payment of student loans.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will work to improve communication between lenders and borrowers and create payment plans with borrower habits in mind. The Office of Management and Budget will study payment plan trends to create policies better adjusted to the student borrowers.

The president will also ask officials from all areas of government to improve lending practices and implement performance-based metrics to evaluate them.

While Obama’s memorandum introduces several new plans, it builds on several pieces of legislation passed during his administration.

The first point of the Bill of Rights is to allow every student access to a low cost post-high school education. To accomplish this, Obama cited his proposed two years of free community college education, as well as his administration’s First in the World Grants, to which the Department of Education allocated $75 million in September. Obama has since proposed an increase to $200 million.

To ensure that every student in America can afford to go to college, the Obama administration has also increased the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,730 in the 2014-2015 academic year, which is almost $1,000 more than the 2008 maximum. The president has also proposed additional increases so the Pell Grant maximum keeps up with inflation.

The necessity for the increase in grants was highlighted by Stephen Culbertson, the communications director for the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, as especially pertinent in Ann Arbor.

“The perfect example of [the need for financial aid reform] is here at the University of Michigan,” Culbertson said. “The lack of economic diversity on the campus is kind of indicative of how prohibitive the cost of higher education is becoming, and particularly higher education is becoming at high-level public institutions. There’s not enough being done. Federal programs can only go so far, a lot of the problem lies at the state level. There’s not adequate funding.”

The University’s chapter of the College Republicans did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Edvisors Network, a national organization that assists students find financial aid opportunities, said he was optimistic about the latest proposals, but felt that there was still more to be done.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Kantrowitz said. “It gathers together several interesting proposals that, on the whole, will provide some benefits, such as the proposal to require federal loan servicers to apply prepayments to the highest rate loan.”

Though he said he was happy to hear that financial aid was a topic of discussion, he added that he was unsure if all the president’s proposals were feasible without congressional action.

“I think it’s going to provide some good, but it’s not going to be earth-shaking in its effects,” Kantrowitz said. “It’ll help some students — borrowers who are struggling — but it’s not increasing the amount of money for grants, for example. It’s not teaching people to borrow only what they can afford, and I think those are key problems that need to be addressed.”

Culbertson also said there was a need for student financial aid reform, but was unsure about how much could be done about student financial aid at the federal level.

“In and of itself, the Student Aid Bill of Rights is not so much a policy solution,” he said. “It’s kind of broad directives that President Obama has released to kind of signal that ‘this is an issue we are looking at more closely on the federal level and we as the government care about, that we want to make college more affordable, we want to make taking out a student loan more clear and simplified.’ ”

In the conference call with reporters, the president urged readers who agreed with the proposal to sign a statement of support at whitehouse.gov/collegeopportunity.

“We want to mobilize the energy and focus the attention of everybody nationally around the basic principles to make it easier to get young people to have the education they need,” Obama said. “We don’t want to allow higher education to become a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every American family should be able to afford.”

Daily Staff Reporter Isobel Futter contributed reporting..