American Council on Education Government Relations Director Anne Meehan gives a presentation during an American Legion education symposium on March 1 at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

Legion symposium focuses on education for veterans, servicemembers

More than 40 veteran advocates, local government officials and higher education representatives shared their expertise and recommendations about creating a better future for veterans and servicemembers during an education symposium on March 1 at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., held in conjunction with The American Legion’s 58th annual Washington Conference.

The event featured presentations on recommendations for the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization and the state of play regarding public service loan forgiveness. Other presenters spoke about comparative studies on education accountability and debt, as well as defining outcomes and return on investment in higher education. 

HEA reauthorization and recommendations

HEA was first passed in 1965, and was primarily crafted to establish financial aid for college-bound students. According to the American Council on Education, “HEA is the single most important piece of legislation overseeing the relationship between the federal government, colleges and universities and students. The legislation authorizes various federal aid programs within the Department of Education that support students pursuing a postsecondary education, including grant programs that support efforts to expand and increase access for low-income and first-generation students.”

The education council’s website also noted that in order to be eligible for federal student aid programs under Title IV, “higher education institutions must comply” with HEA rules and regulations.

Having began the process of reauthorizing HEA, the House Education and Workforce Committee introduced and approved H.R. 4508, the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, in December 2017. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also took action last month by seeking comments and suggestions.

Anne Meehan, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said HEA has been reauthorized eight times since 1965, more or less every four to six years. The last reauthorization, called the Higher Education Opportunity Act, was in 2008.

“I wouldn’t say there was a lot of huge changes involved in that reauthorization. It took 10 years to get there and there were 16 extensions in between,” Meehan said. “There weren’t official reauthorizations happening but there was significant legislation that touched on higher education.”

For Meehan, it is imperative that certain student protections and minimum quality standards are included in the HEA reauthorization. She said this will help ensure that student veterans and other non-traditional students can successfully accomplish postsecondary goals, transition smoothly into the workforce and ultimately, guarantee that taxpayer money is spent responsibly.

In addition, Meehan said data on student outcomes is readily available and should be included in Title IV criteria to ensure quality and a return on investment for taxpayers and students.

“(Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.) has called for some white papers and some responses to that so there will be some significant discussions going on about those issues. But they just aren’t that far along. Unfortunately, I think today it’s such a hyper-partisan environment that it’s going to be very, very hard for Alexander and (Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.) to come together with their causes and get a piece of legislation over the finish line.”

According to Meehan, the reason why the higher education community is most concerned about the PROSPER Act is because it would make higher education less affordable for students, especially for graduate students. A reauthorization bill that takes money away from students, she said, is a non-starter from the American Council on Education’s perspective.

“I don’t think any higher education reauthorization act has ever started off by taking money away from students. Usually with reauthorizations, it’s an attempt to refine resources that we have, refine new programs and adjust to new changes in the environment,” Meehan said. “But it is not about taking away funding. So, that is a real problem.”

Although the PROSPER Act is not a bad bill, Meehan said there are some key things to consider in terms of what veterans would like to see in the Senate reauthorization bill. These recommendations include:

• Coordinating data sharing between the Departments of Defense and Education (to automatically put servicemembers’ loans on interest-free forbearance);

• Coordinating data sharing between the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Education (for automatic discharge of student loans for veterans who receive a 100 percent disability rating);

• Protecting veterans, servicemembers, military-connected students and taxpayers (by preserving the gainful employment rule, market viability test in 90/10, borrower defense to repayment, ban on incentive compensation as well as state authorization);

• Reforming the financial aid application and process;

• Implementing a risk-sharing provision (to hold all institutions accountable for measurable bad outcomes including high student loan default rates and poor post-graduation numbers); and

• Allowing student access to comprehensive and digestible data (in order to understand the progress, successes and hindrances facing all types of students).

“We’re pleased to see that this is a point of conversation right now, though not necessarily in full agreement with all of the language,” said Will Hubbard, vice president of Student Veterans of America.

“The big question is what’s the timeline for the next reauthorization and we don’t really know,” Meehan said. “At the American Council on Education, we do not think that reauthorization is likely to occur this year. The Senate is still talking about the process that they’re going to use to discuss between the majority and minority going forward.”

Public service loan forgiveness

Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, spoke about the state of play regarding public service loan forgiveness for military servicemembers and veterans. Having referred to the 2008 financial crisis, Chopra said it’s important to address college affordability as he projects the student debt will go up from $600 billion to $1.5 trillion by Sept. 15 of this year.

“There’s a popular narrative that this is due to the rise in college costs,” Chopra said. “What happened at the time of the financial crisis was not just that college was getting more expensive, but more importantly, people lost values in their homes, many experienced extended unemployment and they lost value in their retirement savings.

“While costs were going up, people’s ability to pay was going down. And the result was more and more and more debt. We now have a borrower in America defaulting once every 28 seconds, 3,000 a day and over one million a year.”

Currently, Chopra said America is now in a place where there is a lot of discussion about college affordability which is valuable. But there are broader things happening in the economy that he said people need to have in the back of their minds.

“There is more and more data now acknowledging (that the military servicemember and veteran) population has real debt,” Chopra said. “I think there is an incentive of politicians to want to create a lot of ad hoc programs that benefit servicemembers and veterans. They may sound very good but sometimes, there’s no follow through on the implementation and protecting the integrity of it.”

When it comes to discussing student debt, Chopra said it’s important to consider using the three basics of public service loan forgiveness – having the right type of loan, repayment plan and a job – as a footprint to create policies.

“In all of the discussions about policy, I want us to be thinking about downstream implementation and how we can scope policies that are actually easier to implement,” Chopra said. “We need to think through it and make sure we’re holding people accountable to implement them appropriately.

“I want people to think more about how we’re making sure our government is administering these programs with fidelity, integrity and meeting the objectives that they opt to.”