Congress to Debate Funding for Higher Education
Harvard has begun pounding the D.C. pavement in an effort to persuade legislators to see it our way when Congress reviews the sweeping regulations of federal financial aid contained in the Higher Education Act of 1965.
The act, which laid down the law for the administration of most federal student-aid programs including Pell grants and Stafford loans, comes up for a periodic review in January. Reauthorization of the act was last performed in 1992, and it affects the administration-not the appropriation-of education funding.
The two-year reauthorization process is in its beginning stages, with proposals being bandied about by higher education consortiums, congressional representatives and the Department of Education (DOE). Drafting has begun in the Senate, and Capitol Hill observers anticipate that legislative action will begin in January.
The University has set two priorities, according to Nan F. Nixon, director of federal relations, both of which primarily concern graduate students. They are preserving the prestigious Javits fellowship and making federal loan ceilings more flexible for graduate students.
The Javits is unique among federal scholarship programs for two reasons. As a portable fellowship, winning students can use the award at any institution they choose, though winners tend to congregate at the most elite institutions, including Harvard.
The fellowship provides $10,051 toward tuition, which universities are required to match with sufficient funds to cover the rest of tuition, which at Harvard is another $10,000.
In addition, the four-year fellowship can include a stipend of up to $14,400, based on need.
The DOE aims to consolidate the Javits with other existing graduate education programs such as the Harris and GAANN programs. The resulting program would be institutional, meaning that Harvard would apply as a University, and the DOE would no longer have to evaluate the mountain of applications it receives each year from individuals.
Harvard officials suggested outsourcing the application process, but the DOE has not responded favorably to the suggestion. Congressional aides report that some have advocated moving the program under the umbrella of the National Endowment for the Humanities and out of the control of the DOE.
Officials from the DOE did not return several calls.
The proposed consolidation has caused concern that eliminating the fellowships-one of a very few that specifically provide funding for the humanities-could harm the area of study as a whole.
"The strength of the program is that the very best people in a given field-from any place in the country-can receive support and take it where they feel they will get the best education, as opposed to picking the very best people on one campus," said Nona D. Strauss, director of student financial services.
The Department's proposal poses special challenges to Harvard.
Though students can use the award at any institution, they tend to gravitate toward prestigious schools such as Harvard. Of the 80 to 100 fellows who receive awards each year, Harvard typically enrolls six.
As a result, the program lacks a broad base of support in higher education that a more equally distributed aid program enjoys.
"The program...does support students going to the upper tier institutions," said Russell E. Berg, dean for admissions and financial aid in the GSAS.
"The only thing I can say about that, [is that] as a social value, we ought to say that the college teachers of the future ought to get their degrees at the institution that prepares them most appropriately."
In the past, Harvard, a very decentralized university, has not tended to apply as an institution for fellowship programs-something the consolidation would require.
"One of the problems with uniform regulations is that it's hard to find one size that fits all," said James H. Rowe III '73, vice president of government, community and public affairs.
"It's going to be harder for Harvard as a decentralized university than other universities that operate differently," he added.
Jim P. Manley, spokesperson for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 (D-Mass.) said the Senator "feels this is an extremely effective program. This is a program that enjoys broad support [in the Senate], and it's something Senator Kennedy strongly supports."
Kennedy is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which oversees the reauthorization in the Senate.
David B. Williams, chief of staff for representative John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), agreed that "there is probably sufficient support to keep the program alive."
Tierney is the only Massachusetts representative on the House Education and Work Force Committee, which oversees the reauthorization in the House.
Harvard is also trying to break down what James S. Miller, director of financial aid for Harvard and Radcliffe, calls the "firewall" between undergraduate and graduate federal loan ceilings.
Currently, students are limited in the amount they can borrow during both undergraduate and graduate study.
Harvard aims to allow graduate students who did not reach their federal loan ceiling as undergraduates to borrow the leftover amount.
Doing so would allow graduate students to shift their loan burden more toward the federal government and away from commercial lenders, whose loans generally entail uncapped, higher interest rates and whose repayment plans do not include access to loan consolidation or income contingent repayment.
The federal government is "softer, gentler and, most important, less expensive and easier to repay," Nixon says.
The change would most affect students in the Law, Business and Medical schools, where students tend to borrow more to pay for their education.
"I believe [this] to be very important for medical students and health profession students in general because they do borrow a great deal of money for their education," said Theresa J. Orr, assistant dean and director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard Medical School.
"It doesn't seem to me that it's in the spirit of statutory limits that a graduate student would not have access to full statutory limits if they have underutilized as an undergraduate," she added.
Proponents say that this change would not affect the loan burden of undergraduates and that it is not an attempt to shift funding away from university grants.
At one point, the University did consider pursuing a raised federal ceiling for undergraduates, but the plan was abandoned in the light of growing criticism on the Hill of rising tuition costs and efforts to shift more of the cost burden of higher education to students.
Nixon reports that, while greeted with a negative response at first, "people certainly don't want to disadvantage students...I'm optimistic that we're starting to make some progress."
Kennedy and Tierney have yet to take stands on this proposal, according to their offices.
In addition to these two efforts, Harvard supports revisions of the need formula to aid students who save and earn their own money for education-though this is not one of the University's priorities, Nixon said.
"We're not really arguing numbers, we're arguing programmatic issues."