By Richard Vedder
A few months ago, Charles Miller and I met with Under Secretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker in DC to discuss a radical revision in the federal student aid program. The senior officials of that department decided they were going to fight to the end for what they perceived to be a improved system of higher education in this country. I applaud them for their effort.
In July, Secretary Margaret Spellings, along with Sara Tucker, announced a plan to simplify and improve federal student aid, and a couple of days ago Spellings laid out the plan in greater specificity. First, the hated FAFSA form would be shortened by 75 percent. Financial aid decisions would be based on adjusted gross income and family size, and all the questions about family assets and liabilities would be dropped.
Also, families would be given information on their expected financial assistance before the beginning of the senior year in high school, allowing for more intelligent college searching. Both of these moves are welcomed. Whether they will ever come to pass, who knows, although the FAFSA simplification idea is very popular politically, and I don't see how people can argue against earlier notification. However, I sat in on a meeting in DC this summer on the FAFSA form where the educrats and financial aid types fought hard to keep most of the stupid questions on that form that has done more to reduce college access to the poor than anything else in America. The Establishment yields little ground without fighting.
More important, a ton more could be done. It would be comparatively easy to eliminate the FAFSA form, albeit with some IRS cooperation that might require congressional action to compel. The consolidation of more than a dozen different federal aid programs should happen now. Above all, the Pell Grant should morph into a full fledged scholarship (voucher) program which should have three characteristics: it should be progressive(more money going to poorer students), student-centered (money goes to kids, not to schools for distribution), and should be performance-driven (money gets cut off after a reasonable time period, and poor academic performance leads to fund reductions). Indeed, I think every single federal program should be rolled into one.
Of course, I really believe that in the long run the Feds should get out of the business of funding students. The greatest growth in student college participation in the U.S. came early, without significant federal involvement, and I believe the era of massive federal student aid has contributed significantly to the rise in college costs and the growth of university arrogance and inefficiency. But, in her own modest way, Secretary Spellings and Under Secretary Tucker have taken a good step in the right direction. Let us hope the momentum continues with the new administration.