There’s no question that financial aid fraud occurs, and now the federal government is cracking down on it-or trying to, at any rate. However, this attempt is currently under attack by those who believe it may create inequality among students, and therefore is drawing concern from those that such legislation seeks to protect: students themselves. According to Libby A. Nelson on InsideHigherEd,
“Deep in the Senate appropriations bill for the Education Department for the 2013 fiscal year was a provision that would change how Pell Grants are allocated to students in online programs. For those students, Pell Grants would cover only tuition, fees, books and supplies — not room and board, as they currently do.”
It’s tempting to view this proposal as just another part of the ongoing attack on Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid, best exemplified by the Republican-backed budget proposed by Paul Ryan this spring and the Obama administration’s $100 billion Pell Grant cuts. But these attacks will have real consequences, as Jerry Cammarata of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, NY explained:
“If we were to eliminate these grants tomorrow, the 9 million college students who rely upon them would be in peril of dropping out of college, including nearly half of African-American undergraduates and 40% of Hispanics.”
The Real Target of the Legislation
This particular provision of the Senate bill that would cut Pell Grants for living expenses seems clearly targeted at for-profit colleges. These schools have been under nearly constant evaluation and scrutiny over the past two years, during which time investigations by the U.S. Congress and the Inspector General revealed widespread problems in the administration of such schools and programs. The proposed new legislation follows the creation of strict guidelines regarding the regulation of online and for-profit colleges in the wake of those revelations. Recently, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order that created greater protections for military and veteran students enrolled in for-profit colleges, and last week the federal regulations regarding “gainful employment” were overruled by a federal judge.
This newest initiative is aimed at reducing financial aid fraud, which unfortunately seems very prevalent among community colleges and online colleges and does not help the reputation of this promising educational avenue. Just this week, the trial of five of the 12 defendants in one of the largest cases of financial aid fraud was delayed. The accused, who did not plead guilty like their seven co-conspirators, were part of a “fraud ring,” which the Inspector General of the United States describes as a system in which students apply for admission to an open enrollment online college under different names and personal information, called “straw students.” They participate in the online class using this identity, until they get aid disbursements. Part of the disbursement goes to the ringleader of the fraud ring, who is the primary organizer, and the conspirators keep the rest.
I’ve been aware of this phenomenon for quite some time, and so have administrators at the community colleges where I have taught. In fact, it’s well known among many faculty members that students often enroll just to have access to cheap healthcare, which they use but don’t bother to show up for class. I’ve often wondered how many of the students who show up for a few classes and then disappear are actually “straw students” just there for the aid, or who genuinely have encountered difficulties or barriers that prevented them from coming back.
The Real Victims of the Legislation
Sadly, such legislation can have a potentially devastating effect on the ability of millions of students to attend college and even graduate, no matter how well-intentioned. While the corporations that own for-profit colleges may not suffer too much under the new restriction, the ramifications for students are dismaying. Executive Director of the Instructional Technology Council Christine Mullins told InsideHigherEd that the legislation, if passed by Congress, “will particularly hurt community college students. It’s patently discriminatory toward distance learning students.”
Similarly, Russell Poulin, a deputy director of the educational technology advocacy group WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), urges students to contact their senators and points out that there is a central hypocrisy to the proposed legislative changes. He writes,
“If passed, students learning at a distance could receive smaller Pell grants than their on-campus or commuting counterparts. It is hard to understand why the cost for a student’s living expenses are not allowable if the student takes online courses, but would be allowable if that same student were to commute to campus to take the same courses in a classroom.”
That, in a nutshell, is the problem: it will create inequality among students based on their college choices. For example, students often choose to enroll in online programs because they have specific needs. An online program can be just right for a student who is physically disabled or requires regular medical attention that interferes with regular trips to physical campuses-many of which, while perhaps handicapped accessible, are not necessarily comfortable places for these students to manage their more complicated needs.
The point here is not to marginalize these students, who certainly should be able to attend or live on physical campuses, but to allow them the same privilege of choice that other students have. Without financial support through Pell Grants, these students may have no choice but to live on campus, which may not be the best choice for their needs.
Similarly, single parents that need flexibility while trying to earn a degree would be denied living expenses that could help them take care of their children when not in school. Do these students not deserve the same equal treatment in education funding as any other student?
Given the currently soaring drop-out rates among students at community and for-profit colleges, it seems unwise to pull funding at this point. Rather than punish everyone for actions by those that Congress deems bad actors-the proverbial bad apples spoiling the whole bunch-we would do better to alter our enrollment and attendance processes, create stricter guidelines for financial aid based on continued performance in college.