Many of the provisions of the new bill address the challenges of today’s students, including increasing Pell grants to $8,000 in six years and streamlining the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Despite its bipartisan support in Congress, the Higher Education Opportunity Act is not without its critics. Some experts and educators have voiced concern over what they feel is a misleading and misguided overhaul of the national higher education system.
In a letter sent to members of the House and Senate before the bill’s vote, Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, expressed concern over several aspects of the newly revised Higher Education Opportunity Act.
Writing on behalf of several higher education associations, Broad stated that while posing some benefits the act also features various drawbacks. These drawbacks include an increased number of new federal reporting and regulatory requirements. Thus, institutions that do not have enough finances will have to charge more in personnel and administrative costs.
Sandy Baum, an economics professor and senior policy analyst at the College Board, echoed her sentiments of the American Council on Education in a commentary published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“The reauthorization’s newly created ‘watch list’ for institutions whose tuitions rise most rapidly may help curb the rate of increase in published price,” Baum wrote, “But that strategy does nothing to mitigate the fundamental pressures on tuition, and many provisions in the bill are likely to add to institutions’ operating costs.”
The financial aid provisions of the Higher Education Opportunity Act have also come under scrutiny. In particular, the New America Foundation has accused Congress and the media of mischaracterizing the provision that will simplify the FAFSA. According to the New America Foundation, the new two-page EZ FAFSA form will only be available to students from families that already qualify for expedited review. As such, most applicants will still have to go through the same review process.
While the EZ FAFSA form will be utilized primarily by low-income students, UCI’s Office of Financial Aid & Scholarships estimates that approximately 30 percent of undergraduate FAFSA filers could have potentially qualified for the reduced form in the 2008-2009 academic year.
In addition to the new FAFSA form, Christopher Shultz, acting director of UCI’s Office of Financial Aid & Scholarships, also emphasizes the importance of changes to the Federal Pell Grant Program. During the 2007-2008 academic year, 26.5 percent of UCI undergraduates received aid from the federal program. As the Pell Grant maximum amount increases in the coming years, more students will become eligible for grants.
However, even though the financial aid office welcomes the increases in the Pell Grant’s maximum amount, it recognizes that the new legislation will need additional funding from the federal government before any changes can be implemented.
“Normally,” Shultz said, “the law will allow the Pell Grant to be much higher than the money they give us.”
The changes to the Federal Pell Grant Program will mean little if Congress chooses not to allocate the money to fully fund the program. The EZ FAFSA, however, will only aid students whose financial need is dire: slightly more affluent students qualifying for FAFSA must still use the old form.