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An enrollment decrease at IPFW is one source of budget troubles at the regional campus; changes in financial aid requirements are one factor in the enrollment decrease.

Balancing act

Student aid rules that promote accountability also affect access

McClellan
Newman
The Journal Gazette

The budget shortfall responsible for spending cuts and layoffs at IPFW wasn’t the result of a single factor, but an enrollment decline last fall played a big part in creating it. Likewise, no single factor caused the enrollment decline, but changes in federal student aid rules certainly contributed.

IPFW was not alone in feeling the effects. The federal government’s new dictates on how colleges and universities interpret the “satisfactory academic progress” students are required to show to maintain eligibility for aid draw a fine line between access and accountability. More important, they expose the need to reconsider how aid is distributed. It’s time to rethink who college students are, where they are going and how they are getting there.

Accountability counts

Federal investment in student aid is no small change. U.S. Department of Education figures show it grew from $64 billion in 2000-01 to nearly $170 billion in 2010-11. George McClellan, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment at IPFW, said the regulations colleges and universities must follow in dispensing financial aid haven’t changed as much over the years as the interpretation of those rules. It’s the interpretation of “satisfactory academic progress” that’s shaken things up in recent years.

Formerly, if a student ran into academic problems and faced the loss of student aid, it was left to the institution to work with the student, document the problem and decide whether he or she should continue.

“At a university like ours, with a lot of first-time college students and part-time students, we were giving them not just second chances, but sometimes third and fourth chances,” McClellan said. “We required an action plan to document how they were going to get better, but we were being as flexible as we could.”

But the U.S. Department of Education, under the Obama administration, said that wouldn’t do.

“This most recent change has really tightened up on flexibility,” he said. “The feds said, ‘We really had second chances in mind, but not third or fourth chances.’ ”

Norman Newman, director of financial aid at Ivy Tech-Northeast, said administrators there had anticipated tighter regulations and had put academic support programs in place to help students avoid problems. Still, there were students who couldn’t meet the bar.

With the changes, students who fall below a 2.0 grade-point average for a semester or fail to complete two-thirds of the courses they attempt are given a warning. If they fail to raise their grades or again drop too many classes, they lose their student aid. They have the right to appeal but must thoroughly document what caused their academic problems and how they will overcome them. If the appeal is granted, students must earn no less than a C to retain their financial aid.

“We have a pretty tough standard for an appeal now,” Newman said of the committee that reviews the requests.

The Ivy Tech official said it’s difficult to determine the actual effect of the tougher rules on enrollment. “You have to believe that holding students responsible to make academic progress is going to flush out those students that aren’t going on to graduate,” he said.

Are the new rules too tough?

“I don’t think they are too tough,” Newman said. “It’s important to have a reputation that says you must perform. It gives students a fair shot.”

Both Ivy Tech and IPFW have multiple programs to help struggling students – tutoring, counseling and more.

Limiting access?

McClellan notes that the accountability push in student aid, along with calls for more efficiency in higher education, presents interesting questions about the purpose of financial aid. He said IPFW administrators and faculty recognize the need for accountability and appreciate the trust students and families place in them. But the growing push to cut costs bears its own costs.

“The rub becomes, what does it really look like on the street?” McClellan said. “Who are we really trying to provide this education for? The ones who are most blessed? The ones trying to use the ladder?”

He said requirements pushing students to graduate in four years, including 120 credit-hour limits on degrees, discourage anyone from pursuing an interdisciplinary program and, in turn, mean employers would lose the expertise of graduates trained to think across academic fields of study.

Likewise, the push to enroll high school students into dual-credit programs and move them through college more quickly has a downside, McClellan suggested.

“What are you going to do with a 19-year-old employee? Is that really who you want running your company – is that really who you want running your medical office?” he asked.

The accountability push, fueled by worst-case abuses at some colleges, also fails to recognize where effective work is being done.

“Some of our greatest success stories get counted as failures,” Ivy Tech’s Newman said. “We only get graded on first-time, full-time students. I’ve seen so many successful students take longer than two years to finish.”

His observation is a reflection of the changing demographics in higher education. Policymakers have rightly determined more Americans need training and education beyond high school. Institutions, particularly those with open admissions policies, have responded to help adults starting college for the first time or returning after a long absence. Those adults have lives far more complicated than most 18-year-olds. They are likely working – full time or at multiple part-time jobs. They might be caring for a young family or aging parents. A full load of classes and a two- or four-year degree track aren’t the best route for them, but financial aid rules and college funding formulas remain as one-size-fits-all, regardless of whether they apply to Ivy Tech, IPFW or Notre Dame.

“Fewer than one in five of today’s college freshmen graduated from high school in the prior year and immediately enrolled in a residential four-year institution,” observed Jamie Merisotis, CEO and president of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, in a recent blog entry for The Huffington Post. “And yet, a student financing system designed largely to serve that student of the past remains intact. We need a system in which resources are used to support the success of a much larger – and infinitely more diverse – population of students.”

IPFW’s McClellan points to findings from Project DEEP, a Lumina-funded study done by the National Survey of Student Engagement, as a resource in making changes. The study by the Indiana University-based NSSE identified policies, programs and practices used by 20 diverse institutions in promoting student success.

Recognizing that diverse schools need more flexibility in serving students’ needs and taxpayers’ goals in supporting financial aid requires an honest conversation about the disconnect between accountability and access. Allowing higher education professionals to demonstrate how that balance can be achieved is the first and most important step.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 2000 and for Indiana newspapers since 1982. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@jg.net.

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