Student loan guaranty agencies did something relatively unusual when Congress was putting together the Higher Education Reconciliation Act (HERA), legislation that included wide-reaching student aid changes to create $12 billion in budget savings. They urged Congress to create more requirements and federal oversight over guaranty agencies' activities. Not surprisingly, Congress obliged.
The result: a provision known as the College Access Initiative, which requires guaranty agencies to help increase college access and develop a comprehensive listing of the postsecondary education opportunities, programs, publications, and other services available in their designated states.
Complying was not a big stretch for guarantors because they have been actively working to increase college access, especially among underserved student populations like those from low-income families, minorities, and first-generation students. The College Access Initiative formalized a foundational role for guaranty agencies in promoting access and contributed to a growing effort among many organizations to increase college access.
"We are pleased that Congress now has codified in federal law a role that USA Funds and many other guarantors have been performing for years," says Gregory Ayers, vice president of policy and compliance of the guaranty agency USA Funds. "Guarantors have been instrumental in helping families-particularly those with no previous college experience-connect with the information, services, and finances they need to go to college."
While guaranty agencies have actively promoted college access, they haven't necessarily coordinated efforts. The new legislation has motivated these organizations to share best practices and resources to more effectively help students reach college. The results of this collaboration will help other groups promote higher education.
To accomplish the goals of the College Access Initiative, the National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs (NCHELP) is facilitating a workgroup representing 24 guaranty agencies. Chaired by Steven Brooks, executive director of the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, the workgroup has been meeting regularly to develop implementation plans to fulfill the initiative's two main requirements: increasing college access and creating a central resource that lists all the college resources available in states.
Brooks says the legislation is important because it sets a policy goal for the country that encourages collective action in an area where many people have been working in relative isolation. The result has been a flood of idea sharing, coordination among programs, collaboration among college access efforts, and increased publicity about college access.
"It is the first time all these groups have collaborated," Brooks notes. "The collaboration has begun to snowball and everyone is bringing a different piece to the table."
Working in conjunction with Mapping Your Future, an organization that provides free college, financial aid, and financial literacy services, the guaranty agencies created College Access (http://going2college .org). The new website includes detailed information about the academic, emotional, and financial support available through mentoring and tutoring programs in each state, college access resource centers, college and financial aid awareness events, and state and federal financial aid. Links to relevant websites and a comprehensive list of postsecondary education opportunities, programs, publications, and other services available in states make the site a unique resource that connects all college resource programs.
To expand the number of access programs on the site, particularly those geared to low-income and first-generation students, agencies have been reaching out to state partners. The website is an ongoing project that will be continuously updated by guaranty agencies.
Brooks calls it "a great starting point for students and families who don't know about the resources available to help them go to college. It's another door people can use to gain access to this valuable information. That is what access is about, creating many doors to accurate information."
Karen Lanning, NCHELP's vice president for communications and research, encourages those in higher ed to visit College Access to ensure their state's programs are listed.
Also working to increase college access is the Education Finance Council (EFC), a trade association representing not-for-profit and state-based student loan secondary market organizations. These organizations are committed to making college more affordable. Some EFC members are also NCHELP members, so the two organizations keep each other informed. While distinct from the College Access Initiative, EFC's goals are the same.
EFC established an outreach and access committee last year to increase, improve, and ensure access to vital college outreach programs and services for students and families. The committee analyzes and studies issues related to programs and services designed to broaden college access and awareness and develops recommendations for improving and coordinating such programs and related services in order to better serve students, families, communities, and states. Services include:
outreach/early awareness programs.
scholarship/scholarship search related programs.
college planning centers.
financial literacy programs.
college entrance exam preparation and assistance programs.
customized programs for elementary, middle, and high school students.
loan forgiveness programs.
"The student loan community [has] been involved in college outreach for years. As issues relating to college access have gained prominence in the higher education community, the media, and on Capitol Hill, these outreach efforts have received greater attention, and appropriately so," says Alexa Marrero, vice president for communications and industry relations at EFC. "It's an exciting time to be involved in the college outreach arena."
Guaranty agencies have partnered with organizations at every level to increase college access.
At the national level, these agencies participate with college access groups like the National College Access Network (NCAN), the Pathways to College Network, the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, the Council for Opportunity in Education, the Jump$tart Coalition, College Goal Sunday, the Lumina Foundation, the College Board, the Pell Institute, and Excelencia in Education.
At the state level, guaranty agencies work with K-16 public and private schools. In addition, many work closely with the state coordinating boards, associations of independent colleges and universities, higher education commissions, and state financial aid associations on services and programs. The agencies also provide materials and training to state departments of Education, Labor, Children and Family Services, Corrections, Community Health, Rehabilitation Services, and Career and Technical Education.
Locally, agencies have formed partnerships to provide training to help program leaders who interact with at-risk students or nontraditional learners to help guide them to postsecondary or training education programs. Some of these local partnerships include organizations like public libraries, youth centers, parent-child centers, 4-H groups, community service organizations, churches, YMCA-type groups, public television, and Junior Achievement.
For example, a guaranty agency in one state partners with a nonprofit's Tax Assistance Program (TAP). The agency provides training for 1,600 TAP tax assistance volunteers so they can also assist with FAFSA completion questions. As a result, in 2005 TAP volunteers helped more than 1,100 individuals complete a FAFSA.
Brooks and Lanning see financial aid administrators as a vital piece of the college access puzzle because they are a direct link to students and have the ability to show people that college can be affordable.
The work group is looking into ways to collaborate with financial aid advisors to leverage their knowledge of financial aid to dispel widely accepted myths that college is not affordable or not worth the cost.
"We look forward to working closely with financial aid administrators," Lanning says, adding that administrators should reach out to state guaranty agencies.
As Brooks notes, every group that collaborates on college access brings an important piece to address one of the many complex challenges that deters students from attending college. Significantly increasing access among low-income, minority, and first-generation students will take the combined effort of these organizations because it's such a complex problem.
"Increasing college access among underrepresented students is not easy," Brooks says. "If it was easy we would have solved it by now."
But he is optimistic, highlighting the recent focus on college access as a sign that real progress is being made in this area. "We have not really seen this type of focus on economic diversity since the '70s," he says.
Haley Chitty is assistant director of Communications for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).