Education groups grapple with government over grant rules

Recent changes to federal grant programs have largely ignored recommended changes by various higher education organizations, several organization officials have said.

In July, the Department of Education dispatched a Federal Register bulletin outlining rules and regulations for the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant programs.

These rules prompted an outcry from a variety of higher education organizations.

A joint letter to the Department of Education from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, dated Aug. 17, outlined a few concerns.

The grant programs relied on certain definitions of an “academic year” and “eligible majors” for students to qualify. The letter called the academic year definition “unworkable” and said that the list of eligible majors for the grants “failed to recognize a number of academic disciplines.”

The American Council on Education also authored a letter to the Department of Education, co-signed by seven other groups, on Aug. 16. In addition to the same concerns about academic years and eligible majors, the Council also spoke out on transcript requirements.

The ACG bases its awards for first-year college students on eight semesters of completed high school, though most colleges base admissions decisions on six or seven.

“Rather than encumbering the Academic Competitiveness Grant program with this requirement,” the letter said, “we believe the Department should adopt a standard that assumes the regulatory requirement is fulfilled if an institution awards the grant in good faith using the best available information at the time the award is made.”

On Nov. 1, the Department of Education released new changes to the programs, in another Federal Register, and many higher education organizations feel slighted by the results.

“Considering the sheer number of comments and the hurried pace in which the July regulations were drafted, it is surprising that so few substantive changes have been made,” said an AACRAO statement. “In fact, of the 42 sections the Department considered modifying, all but 8 remain substantively the same.”

“It’s a sad state that we and the Department can’t come to an agreement on things like eligible major,” said AACRAO Executive Director Barmak Nassirian. “The Secretary’s outright refusal to accommodate existing institutional practices with regard to academic policy bodes ill for the program.”

One official with the Department of Education said there was thorough discussion on all the concerns of the various councils, but the reasons for keeping certain regulations were outlined in the Register.

“Many commenters objected to the Department’s decision to base the duration of eligibility on an academic year,” the Register said. “Contrary to the assertions of some commenters, the Secretary believes that the interpretation of the term academic year in the regulations is not inconsistent with other . uses of the term.”

On the topic of eligible majors, the Register wrote, “One commenter believed that the Federal Government should not insert itself into the process of determining when a student declares a major as this action usurps an institution’s prerogative to establish its own academic requirements.”

“The Secretary does not agree that the regulations intrude on an institution’s prerogative to establish its own academic requirements,” the Register added.

“They just don’t seem to care,” said David Baime, vice president for government relations of the American Association of Community Colleges. The AACC signed on to the ACE’s letter in August. “There’s no real answer.”

The ACG is not open to students studying in certificate programs, a fact that Baime noted directly to the Education Secretary. “This arbitrary exclusion of students from the program is very regretful and will certainly disadvantage some students,” Baime said.

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