Access and Affordability
The Department supported or initiated a number of efforts and made progress toward this objective, despite limited ability to impact college costs or control price. The Department unveiled the expanded College Scorecard, a college choice tool that provides a wealth of customizable data—including many important metrics that have not been published before—so students and families can make informed choices based on the criteria most important to them. The Department also made the data behind the Scorecard publicly available in order to jumpstart efforts across the country to develop meaningful metrics for accountability. The Department continues to seek ways to simplify the FAFSA so it is easier and faster for students and families to apply for financial aid. Beginning with the 2017–18 award year, students can apply earlier and electronically retrieve tax information filed for an earlier year, rather than waiting until tax season to complete their applications. The number of IHEs agreeing to utilize the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, a model form that makes it easier for students to compare financial aid offers, grew from around 2,000 in 2013–14 to more than 3,000 in 2014–15 following an outreach effort to encourage institutions to sign on.
Recognizing that FAFSA completion significantly increases chances that students will actually enroll in college, the Department issued guidance clarifying that state authorities may share FAFSA completion data with nonprofit organizations. This adds to the list of authorized entities that includes LEAs, The Federal TRIO Programs (TRIO) and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grantees, tribal education authorities, and Indian organizations, so those entities can maximize the number of their students that complete the FAFSA.
The Department has taken additional actions to help struggling federal student loan borrowers manage their debt. The Department held negotiated rulemaking sessions and finalized regulations in October 2015 that expand Pay As You Earn, an income-based repayment program, to all student borrowers who have direct loans. In the wake of the collapse of Corinthian Colleges, the Department announced in June of this year that it would begin implementing a previously little-used provision in the law called “defense to repayment,” which allows borrowers to seek loan forgiveness if they believe they were defrauded by their college under state law, and assigned a Special Master to oversee the high volume of loan discharge cases. Since then, the Special Master has issued two reports with recommendations for developing a process to handle these borrower defense claims. The Department also announced its intent to establish a negotiated rulemaking committee in FY 2016 to address loan discharge and borrower defense issues, held two public hearings in September for the rulemaking, and since the end of the fiscal year has selected negotiators and announced three negotiated rulemaking sessions to be held in January, February, and March. The Department began to wind down contracts with five private collection agencies that provided inaccurate information to borrowers, and is revising existing contracts to ensure the proper balance between the interests of the borrower and of the taxpayer, as well as to increase the Department’s oversight capabilities.
Subsequent to FY 2015, the Department issued a report on October 1, 2015 with U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on a series of statutory, regulatory, and administrative recommendations to safeguard student borrowers. The recommendations include establishing: a way for borrowers to authorize the Internal Revenue Service to release income information for multiple years to the Department to determine monthly payments under income-driven repayment plans; loan servicing standards; principles for borrower defense legislation; a streamlined discharge process for borrowers eligible for a total and permanent disability discharge of their loans; increased borrower protections in the federal student loan program; and protections for private student loan borrowers. The Under Secretary is overseeing a process to collect feedback from student borrowers and loan servicers in order to strengthen loan servicer contracts when they are renegotiated in the future.
Research indicates that correctional education programs for prisoners reduce recidivism rates. The Department therefore launched a Second Chance Pell Grant pilot through the Experimental Sites program. The goal of this limited pilot program is to increase access to high-quality educational opportunities and help incarcerated individuals successfully transition out of prison and back into the classroom or the workforce. In addition, the Department invested in a series of demonstration projects through the Improving Reentry Education grant competition, and launched a program to improve the outcomes of juvenile justice youth in the reentry process through a strong partnership with the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The partial restoration of Ability to Benefit provisions tied to career pathways restored access to federal student aid for millions of older youth and adults who lack a high school credential and are enrolled in a program that is part of a career pathway. The Department provided guidance through a Dear Colleague letter and initiated a series of webinars and other technical assistance activities to hold up programs and institutions that illustrate how to appropriately administer these new provisions. These efforts significantly open up affordable opportunities for those who were unable to complete high school due to a variety of reasons.
As part of the Reach Higher Campaign, the Department collaborated with the Office of the First Lady to create a competition to promote the development of mobile app solutions that will help students navigate education and career pathways, including CTE. (The competition was subsequently announced in October 2015.)
Although results for metrics 1.1.A, 1.1.B, 1.1.C, 1.1.D, and 1.1.E are influenced by actions taken by the Department, they are most influenced by factors that are beyond the control of the Department. For example, results for metrics 1.1.A and 1.1.B are most influenced by actions taken by postsecondary institutions, state and local agencies regarding funding decisions, and market forces and job creation trends. The Department met its FY 2015 performance targets for metrics 1.1.A and 1.1.B to slow the increase in average net price at public institutions. However, given the Department’s limited ability to influence net price, the Department plans to replace these metrics with different metrics for FY 2016.
Regarding metric 1.1.C, the Department achieved its FY 2015 performance target to increase the number of high school students completing the FAFSA. Efforts such as the FAFSA completion project, increased outreach activities by FSA and other offices, and the Department’s participation in the American Council on Education’s National College Application Week initiative since 2011, likely contributed to success with this target.
States are required to submit data for metrics 1.1.D and 1.1.E by November 30 for the previous fiscal year. As such, the FY 2015 data are not available until spring 2016. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), signed by the President in July 2014, reforms the public workforce system by strengthening alignment and access to employment, training, education, and support services needed to succeed in the labor market. In particular, the WIOA includes many changes that are designed to strengthen and improve employment for individuals with disabilities, many served by the State Vocational Rehabilitation Services and Supported Employment programs. WIOA places significant emphasis on obtaining competitive integrated employment, especially in the amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Program services are designed to maximize the ability of individuals with disabilities, including individuals with the most significant disabilities, to achieve competitive integrated employment through customized employment, supported employment, and other individualized services. The Department will continue to track national aggregate annual earnings of Vocational Rehabilitation consumers and transition-aged youth. Future annual earnings are expected to improve by the regulatory actions that the Department will undertake in FY 2016.