Katrina aid would benefit online students

A new bill meant to ease the burden of New Orleans-area college students displaced by Hurricane Katrina is drawing controversy from some within higher education.

In response to the destruction caused by Katrina, Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced the Hurricane Katrina Education Relief Act two weeks ago to provide immediate relief to schools in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

However, the bill also contains a provision to temporarily overturning a 1992 rule in order to make federal aid available for online students – worrying some within higher education.

“While I suspect the bill is quite well-intentioned, it contains a provision that has been very controversial with higher ed advocates whose efficacy is really in doubt when it comes to assisting the Katrina-affected students,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

The issue has to do with what is referred to as the “50 percent rule,” which limited federal aid to colleges where more than half the courses offered taught in the classroom setting in order to provide more oversight of how the money was being spent.

The rule was part of Congress’ response to documented waste, fraud and abuse in student financial aid programs, and was intended to ease worries about the risk of the internet as a potential medium for fraudulence directed at students by phony institutions of higher education.

Nassirian said that while the new bill may be well-intentioned, he fears it could open the door to the type of fraud the 50 percent rule was created to counter.

“We don’t oppose the Internet, but we want to do this in a thoughtful way . not create a situation where a Web site out of California can rip off students in New York state,” Nassirian said. “I mean, what does that have to do with Katrina?”

Supporters of the bill dismissed opposition to the bill, saying the measure has broad support. Craig Orfield, spokesman for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said the bill is supported by higher education experts in the Senate and that there has been “wide agreement” on its usefulness for providing relief to affected students.

“We’ve gone to great lengths to come up with a proposal that is supported by both Democrats and Republicans,” Orfield said.

Orfield added that the suspension of the rule should not be viewed as a precedent for long-term policy, but rather as an exception in the case of an emergency. A disaster of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina, he said, requires some sort of change, despite the potential for abuse.

“Anytime you’re making federal appropriations there’s going to be some kind of opportunity for abuse or for fraud,” Orfield said. “If we’re going to set the bar so tremendously high, the bottom line is no one’s going to get economic relief who needs it.”

However, opponents of the bill said more needs to be done to ensure the relaxed rules are not exploited. Nassirian said he would prefer some sort of waver system to determine an online program’s legitimacy on a case-by-case basis.

Despite the opposition, Orfield said he is optimistic that the bill will pass easily with bipartisan support.

“The two sides have worked together in a streamlined fashion to move forward legislation in record time,” Orfield said. “It’s been very, very good,”

Still, those opposed charge that lawmakers’ consensus does not necessarily make for good legislation.

“Pity for them, they have bipartisan agreement on a bad bill,” Nassirian said.

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