Higher Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Higher Education Initiative

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With the presidential election only days away, we thought it would be a good time to take a closer look at President Obama’s higher education record. In this post, we highlight the administration’s five greatest hits. Tomorrow, we will examine the administration’s five biggest misses.

So without further ado, here are the Obama administration's most significant higher ed accomplishments:

1. Reforming Student Loans: President Obama achieved his single most significant higher education victory in March 2010 when he signed into law legislation ending the wasteful practice of subsidizing private lenders to make federal student loans. Overcoming the fierce opposition of the student loan industry, the Obama administration and Democratic Congressional leaders eliminated the Federal Family Education Loan program, which had long been racked by corruption, and shifted to 100 percent direct lending, which delivered the same federal loans to students at a much lower cost for taxpayers and without all the scandals. And despite dire warnings from the industry and its allies in Congress about the risks of moving thousands of colleges out of FFEL and into direct lending, the U.S. Department of Education pulled off the transition without disturbing even a single student’s access to federal student loans.

2. Reining in For-Profit Higher Education:  For much of the last decade, federal officials turned a blind eye to widespread allegations that some of the largest for-profit higher education companies were putting low-income students in harm’s way – loading them up with unmanageable levels of debt for training from which they were unlikely to benefit. But nearly from the start, the Obama administration made clear that those days were over. Most significantly, the U.S. Department of Education eliminated loopholes that the Bush administration put in place to help these for-profit schools skirt a long-standing federal law that prohibits colleges from compensating recruiters based on their success in enrolling students. While the Education Department has had mixed success with other student aid integrity regulations it put in place, the spotlight that the administration and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) have placed on for-profit college abuses has brought public attention to these problems and forced many of these institutions to reform their practices.

3. Making Private Loans Safer for Students: Under the Obama administration, there is, for the first time, a single federal bureau in charge of regulating private student loans, rather than the patchwork of agencies that did little to stop the predatory lending practices Higher Ed Watch has helped expose since the blog’s start.  As part of legislation to reform Wall Street, the administration championed the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to oversee the private student loan marketplace, and give private loan borrowers somewhere to turn when they get into disputes with their lenders. Over the last several months, the new Private Student Loan Ombudsman has done a tremendous job in showing that the bureau is taking borrowers’ complaints seriously. No matter who wins the election, we hope that the bureau will be able to continue its work of taming what has long been the “Wild West” of student lending.

4. Boosting the Pell Grant Program: From the start, President Obama has shown steadfast support for the Pell Grant program, the primary source of federal financial aid for low-income students. In the federal stimulus legislation and student loan reform bill, the administration worked with Congress to significantly boost the maximum Pell Grant. And in the budget wars that followed, the White House successfully fought back House Republican proposals to cut the maximum award and thereby significantly reduce the grants’ purchasing power. The Obama administration can justifiably be criticized for failing to develop a long-term plan for dealing with the Pell Grant program’s budget problems. But, to be fair, House Republicans did not exactly jump out of their seats to work with Democrats on developing a bipartisan solution to the program’s funding woes over the long haul either.

5. Promoting Smarter, More Useable, and More Transparent Data: Right out of the gate, the Obama administration has led in this area. Administration officials simplified the FAFSA and took the radical step of creating efficiency in government (!) by allowing existing data housed in different government agencies to talk to one another. Thanks to a partnership between the Department of Education and the IRS, students can now click a button that will prepopulate their FAFSA or their Income-Based Repayment applications with required tax information.  A partnership with the Social Security Administration allowed everyone to see, for the first time, real wage information for students in programs covered by the gainful employment regulations.  In addition, the Administration proposed a model financial aid shopping sheet and a college scorecard that would help students and families make informed college-going and college-financing decisions by providing them with clear, consistent, information about college costs and outcomes. While there is still much to do to ensure that these tools and more get into the hands of students, the Administration’s leadership on this front has been a tremendous win for students and families.

Click here for our take on President Obama's higher ed misses.

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