Seven billion dollars isn't chump change. That's how much the U.S. Department of Education claims it is owed on defaulted student loans--loans never paid back because of a variety of circumstances.
But consumer advocates and lawmakers are at odds over just how far the DOE can go to retrieve the money it is owed.
One case is that of James Lockhart, a disabled man in his 60s who defaulted on his loans more than a decade ago, but is now suing the government to prevent it from withholding a portion of his Social Security checks.
Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit consumer advocacy organization that is representing Lockhart, claims that he is solely dependent on his monthly Social Security payments.
The case has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where, this November, justices will decide whether the government can legally deduct debts owed on student loans more than 10 years in default from Social Security checks.
At the crux of the argument are three laws enacted and amended by Congress over the years that are being read together, but have been interpreted differently by previous courts.
The Social Security Act of 1935 prohibits payments from being withheld to pay off debts. The Higher Education Assistance Act of 1965 (HEA), which was amended in 1991, put a 10-year time limit on the government's ability to pursue unpaid loans. And Congress enacted the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 (DCIA) as an amendment to the Debt Collection Act of 1982 (DCA), allowing the government to pursue "administrative offsets," or Social Security payments--but only within a 10-year statute of limitation.
For Brian Wolfman, director of Public Citizen's litigation group, the only question is whether Lockhart's loans have remained unpaid for more than 10 years.
Wolfman thinks Lockhart will prevail before the Supreme Court because "there has not been an express reference that is necessary to override the 10-year statute of limitation."
If Lockhart loses his case, "even if the student loan is 100 years past due," says Wolfman, the government will be able to retrieve the money by seizing Social Security payments, which is currently illegal under the Social Security Act.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education would not comment on pending lawsuits.
The case is not without precedent, however. In Lee v. Dept. of Ed. (2004), another case where a defaulter sued the government to keep it from seizing her federal payments, the Eighth Circuit Appellate Court ruled that if Congress had wanted Social Security payments to be seized it would have originally written that into the amended HEA in 1991.
"Had Congress intended to limit the disabling provision to allow the government unlimited offset opportunities for the collection of delinquent student loans," the court ruled, "it would have done so explicitly. In the absence of Congressional language authorizing application of HEA to Social Security offsets, the district court concluded that the specific limitations in DCIA prevail."
Daren Bakst, president of the Council on Law in Higher Education, says that if the still-pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act includes an amendment allowing the Department of Education to seize Social Security payments, then that would turn the tables against Lockhart.
"But if Congress doesn't do anything [to change the HEA], that reflects Congress' view on the issue," Bakst says.
Wolfman says, "We think that if Congress said 10 years is the limit, then it's enough time. Paying back your debts is important, but having statutes of limitation is also important."
On Becoming A Productive University: Strategies for Reducing Costs and Increasing Quality in Higher Education
Edited by James Groccia and Judith Miller, Anker Publishing, 2005, 384 pp., $39.95
When used in the context of higher education, "productivity" sounds like a dirty word. After all, as the argument goes, this isn't a widget-making business. But productivity is about increasing educational outcomes relative to costs, and that's no simple challenge for cash-strapped institutions. The contributors to this book--who come from a variety of disciplines and institutions--offer specific strategies for increasing productivity in all areas, from organization, assessment, and faculty development to technology, curricular reform, and classroom instruction. The solutions presented here can be implemented at any college or university, and can go a long way to improving quality in higher education.
J. Barry DuVall is on a mission to make the college campus a safer place. As director of the Technology Advancement Center at East Carolina University (N.C.), he and his team are working on several pilot projects that will give students handheld personal safety devices.
In DuVall's opinion, the handheld devices go one better than the emergency phones prevalent on many campuses. As helpful as such telephones can be, they are limited because they are stationary while students are mobile, says DuVall. And, while cell phone technology may seem to be an easy answer, the carrier signals are not reliable enough in every campus building to be effective, he adds.
That's why DuVall and his team are testing and developing personal safety devices with built-in panic buttons.
One press will alert campus police to a student in danger. Think of this as the student version of the "Help me, I've fallen and I can't get up," button device made popular in a TV commercial some years back.
DuVall says that two murders last spring at University of North Carolina-Wilmington helped him focus even more on his work. His center has already launched a pilot project to protect the students using a growing, but fringe area of the campus, located in the town of Greenville.
The project is called "Warehouse Alert," because this area of campus encompasses old warehouses that are now being repurposed for academic and student use. Throughout the summer, 20 students who walk to and from the warehouse area will test personal safety devices.
The technology involved includes a series of locators installed throughout this campus area. Campus police will know when a student activates a personal safety device. Technology at the police station will be able to pinpoint a student's location so police can send aid. The entire cost for this pilot project is $5,000.
Another pilot focuses on students with disabilities. Blind students, those using wheelchairs, and those with other mobility needs, will carry personal safety devices that can be activated from any part of the campus. DuVall says the devices can do double-duty in all cases, helping to not only communicate who is in danger, but who may need medical assistance.
This fall, Georgetown University's neediest students can reap the benefits of the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which offers alumni the chance to sponsor individual students with a contribution of $15,000 each year, for five years. Group donations are also accepted--as long as they amount to the annual $15,000 sum. "If we can raise funds on an annual giving basis that go directly to students with demonstrated financial difficulties, the university will be in a more competitive stance to recruit these students," says Julie Green Bataille, a GU spokesperson.
With an endowment of $742 million, which Bataille says is meager compared to the university's competitors, "we haven't been able to compete with the other schools that are alleviating students' loan obligations and offering attractive financial aid packages."
Almost $1 million has already been donated to the scholarship program. The hope is to offer a scholarship to 50 of this fall's incoming students. The $15,000 amount will reduce the loan part of a student's financial aid package by about $3,000 a year, Bataille says.
Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions, says the program is unique in that it's based on an annual giving model and does not rely on endowed scholarships or funds from the annual budget.
Have you ever wondered what the differences are between Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University East? You'll soon find out now that the Arizona Board of Regents has approved a proposal to redesign the Arizona university system, which entails assigning each school within the system a specific mission and identity. The board began the study last May after learning of increasing student population demands in the area.
"With this potential shortfall of slots for students, we felt we had to really focus on the demand and whether we have the capacity to hold all these students,'' says Mary Jo Waits, director of the university redesign feasibility and planning committee. "We are not trying to create new universities. We are trying to figure out a way to give students options within the university system based on their tuition requirements and fields of interest."
As a result, the redesign will give each school the freedom to craft its own mission and strengths, admissions policies, and tuition rates, Waits says. For example, The University of Arizona, she says, is on the path to becoming "the premiere research university," while Arizona State University, which has three campuses, is focusing on engineering and science. Northern Arizona University's new vision will concentrate on the undergraduate community, but will still continue with its doctoral and research programs. "These programs will primarily focus on those that fit with the economic development needs in that part of the state," says Waits.
While the redesign is a step in the right direction, there are still more issues on the table to be addressed, Waits says. "We are also talking about how we can ensure success for Latino students and tighten our relationship with community colleges. I don't think anybody believes our work here is done."
There's a new high-speed network in Monterey Bay, Calif., and it is open to the entire community. With much pride and fanfare, California State Monterey Bay launched a high-speed network this spring that will not only help its students and faculty, but the entire municipality.
Cal State's Networked University project provides a gigabyte of connectivity to a number of users in the area, including staff at 30 other research institutions on the peninsula, the K-12 school district, employees at city hall, EMS workers, and several hundred area nonprofit agencies.
The new network, which uses Cisco technology, replaces other technology that first linked all the institutions two years ago. The network allows for the university and all related agencies to share data more quickly, along with rich media and video clips. The latter is important to Cal State's service learning initiatives. Many students earn academic credits by interning at local social service agencies, maritime research centers and environmental organizations, explains Gil Gonzales, CIO of Cal State Monterey. Through the network they can provide online training to other staffers and share research from various locations.
Gonzales employs an engineer who dedicates his time to network operations. Technically, the town charges users a nominal fee to use the high-speed network. The town, in turn, remits the dues to Cal State Monterey Bay. In all, the university will receive $240,000 annually for providing the network.
In addition to helping the locals, the university's high bandwidth has been called upon to assist other maritime research projects.
Recently, for example, the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., needed 10 megabytes of constant bit rate service to broadcast a compressed, full-motion research video, says Gonzales.
The city and Cal State gave the OK for the aquarium to piggyback on the network, allowing the maritime research facility to push the rich media project through the network at a low cost.
Drinking, hazing, fighting--these and other troubles are often synonymous with the word "fraternity." Colgate University (N.Y.), has come up with what some think is an extreme solution to some of the problems the Greek system brings to campus. The university is buying up campus frat houses. This costly and sometimes contentious effort came at the recommendation of a task force on campus culture, which was formed after an off-campus car accident in 2000 left four students dead and the driver in jail for vehicular manslaughter. It was found that the driver had been drinking at a frat house party.
Based on the task force's recommendation, Colgate's trustees decided that beginning in fall 2005, all students would live in university-owned housing. By exercising more control over the residences, the university hopes to cut down on hazing, sexual assaults and other incidents. Residential advisors will likely live in these houses and monitor activities, much as they do in other residence halls. Members of those Greek organizations, though, will be able to continue living in these houses. A reported 40 percent of Colgate's 2,750 students belong to a fraternity or sorority.
Colgate plans to spend up to $5 million to purchase the houses, according to Treasurer David Hale. To date, five frats and two sororities have agreed to Colgate's purchasing terms.
But the plan has caught flak fromsome disgruntled alumni. Charles "Tim" Sanford, a graduate from the class of 1958, has formed "Freedom Matters, Students and Alumni for Colgate." In addition to maintaining a website (www.
sa4c.com), a blog and e-mail alerts, the group has organized protests and has reportedly hired a political consultant to help with its campaign. Sanford and supporters argue that Colgate is pushing the Greek culture off campus and limiting student freedom. One speaker at a recent rally characterized Colgate's plan as a "blatant land grab."
One fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, has refused to sell its property and has brought legal action.
The university denies that this is an opportunistic move. "Everyone agreed that something had to be done," says James Leach, vice president for communications. "Things could not go on status quo."