February 1, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 21°F


Department of Education changes may affect Ithaca College

Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the U.S. Department of Education has announced changes in guidelines and cuts to key programs utilized by colleges across the country. These changes could impact Ithaca College.

Colleges are still waiting to hear how Trump’s administration will be moving forward on key Title IX policies, student loan debt refinancing and potential cuts to grant and work study programs. Potential changes to these programs have administrators at the college nervous that students’ best interests will not be met.

Title IX

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said the Department of Education will be replacing the current guidance put in place by former President Barack Obama regarding Title IX procedures that her department has deemed ineffective.

Title IX legally requires colleges to investigate cases of sexual assault and sexual violence. The failure to do so can result in a loss of federal funding for the institution. In 2011, the Obama administration released a Dear Colleague letter, which offered guidelines to colleges on how to handle sexual assault cases on their campuses. However, the Trump administration’s Department of Education expressed concerns that the current guidelines do not give the accused due process, which is why it decided to begin replacing the guidelines.

DeVos said during her speech Sept. 7 at George Mason University that the Dear Colleague letter mishandled cases regarding sexual assault on college campuses. DeVos said it was important the Obama administration brought attention to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, but that its guidance took away due process rights from accused students.

“Survivors, victims of a lack of due process and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved,” DeVos said.

Alyssa Peterson, a policy coordinator for Know Your IX, an advocacy organization for sexual-assault survivors, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that she was worried that victims may be at a disadvantage during the notice-and-comment period because of the potential change in guidelines.

Tiffani Ziemann, Title IX coordinator at Ithaca College, said it is hard to know how the change in guidelines will affect the college, since the announcement lacked clear policy direction. The Title IX guidance will soon be put through a notice-and-comment period in which the public can offer opinions for improvement, but Ziemann said she has not heard any announcement regarding how long this period will be open for. During this period, Ziemann expects DeVos will be hearing advocates for both victim rights, accused rights and administration procedures.

When DeVos used the term “failure on both sides” in her speech, it made Ziemann believe DeVos is focused on making sure accused students have rights during the process of a sexual assault case. This has been a controversial direction that has some advocates worried that victims will have less power to advocate for themselves if the accused are given more rights.

Ziemann said she believes colleges within New York State will have a little more stability. In 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Enough is Enough law, which provides colleges mandated guidelines that they must follow regarding sexual assault cases on their campuses in order to maintain their accreditation.

“Our policy … is built within the context of the Office of Civil Rights guidance but also really structured around Enough is Enough,” she said.

The Enough is Enough law asks colleges to support and protect survivors but also creates the opportunity for both the reporting student and the responding student to be fully participatory in the process, Ziemann said. She said she does not foresee any major changes in the college’s policy until the new guidance from the OCR is released.

“We are currently compliant and following state law and meeting those expectations,” she said.

The federal guidance that exists is not a law, however. The guidance does not serve as additional amendments to Title IX but rather recommends what the best practices are, Ziemann said.

“If New York State law … conflicts with this guidance, we may just have to go with the law, since we are legally bound,” she said.

Even if the OCR releases only another set of guidelines, Ziemann said, the college would still spend time determining if the guidance would be appropriate to incorporate for students on campus.

Dana Scaduto, general counsel at Dickinson College, told The Chronicle for Higher Education she feels there is more opportunity for input with the new guidelines DeVos plans to implement. Scaduto said it is helpful for colleges to have the opportunity to give input because they currently do not have much flexibility when handling cases of sexual assault. She said that only two options were available for the handling of cases under the Obama administration: launch a full investigation and disciplinary procedure, or not do anything.

Washington Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a statement she hopes DeVos will keep the current guidance in place.

“With an acting assistant secretary for civil rights who blamed sexual assaults on alcohol and regret, and a president with his own concerning history on the issue, it’s clear Secretary DeVos could use some suggestions on how to combat the epidemic of campus sexual violence,” Murray said in her statement.

In July, Candice E. Jackson, assistant secretary for civil rights, told the New York Times that 90 percent of accusations of sexual assault on college campuses happen after regretting a sexual encounter. She later apologized for her statement.

Public Loan Service Forgiveness

The Department of Education proposed the elimination of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program in a budget proposal in May.

PSLF began in 2007, during George W. Bush’s presidency, and encouraged students to pursue careers in public service fields with the reassurance that their loans would be forgiven after 10 consecutive years of service. So far, 611,598 students have submitted employment certification forms to express their interest in the PSLF program, according to the Department of Education.

The first round of recipients are set to have their loans forgiven this October. The first round of recipients are at least 552,931 people, according to the Washington Post.

The Department of Education’s budget proposal argues the PSLF “unfairly favors some career choices over others and is complicated for borrowers to navigate.” The department says cuts to PSLF will allow more to be dedicated to a proposal “for a single Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plan.”

PSLF eligibility is available to people who hold government jobs, people who work for 501(c)(3) nonprofits and people who work for nonprofits that are not classified as a 501(c)(3) but still are part of a public service, according to CNN.

The uncertainty of how the Department of Education will handle loan forgiveness is concerning, Lisa Hoskey, director of Ithaca College’s Student Financial Services, said. She said she is concerned the department may not honor the commitments that were already made to students who were told their loans would be forgiven.

“I understand re-evaluating that program because it can be expensive,” Hoskey said. “But I don’t think we should back off on the commitments that we have.”

Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said the affects this proposed cut would have on undergraduates would be modest compared to the effects graduate students would see. The college has 460 graduate students currently enrolled, according to its website.

“Most undergraduates don’t have the same large amount in federal debt,” Kelchen said. “The biggest effect … is on graduate and professional students who can take on $100,000 or more in debt.”

Sophomore Maria Bushby, an English education major, said she had planned to take advantage of the PSLF program, which she believes beneficial because it allows people to do important work without having to worry about their debt being overwhelming. A lot of times, people who go into public service jobs struggle to pay off loans because of the amount of pay they receive, Bushby said.

“It’s nice to know the education you’re getting is not a burdenit’s an opportunity and a priority,” she said.

Bushby said she had planned to work in the Peace Corps after graduation, another program that has been proposed to see dramatic cuts.

“If this disappears, my dream is gone,” she said. “I would have to get a job that pays substantially more than what I was planning, although the work is not what I want to do.”

Government Grant Funding

In March 2017, the Trump administration released its “America First” budget plan, which included cuts to student aid programs, such as Supplemental Educational Opportunity grants, Perkins Loan and work-study. The budget cuts proposed decrease opportunities for low-income and disadvantaged students to have access to higher education. Currently, Pell Grants are the primary federal program for low-income students, and programs such as GEAR UP and TRIO provide opportunities for disadvantaged students and helps them succeed once they are enrolled in college, according to Inside HigherEd.

Jessica Thompson, policy and research director at The Institute for College Access and Success, said she was surprised that work-study, Perkins Loan and SEOG funding were all proposed to undergo cuts. These programs are used differently by each college, as they control what they want to use the allocated money for based on their campus’ needs, Thompson said.

“Even though they make up a small portion of funding, they were pretty dramatically targeted by the President,” she said.

Cuts to work-study would vary by college, but the money each college would normally receive would potentially be cut in half, Hoskey said. Some had said this program was already underfunded, which is why it is surprising that it is proposed to be cut, Thompson said.

“The heartening news is that there doesn’t seem to be interest in the House and Senate on cutting these programs,” Thompson said.

The Department of Education’s proposed budget justifies cutting Federal WorkStudy by saying the program is “inefficient at allocating funds to the neediest students.”

“According to Department data, among dependent students, those with family incomes at or above $30,000 received 66 percent of FWS funds compared to 33 percent of FWS funds going to students with family incomes below $30,000,” the Department of Education’s proposed budget states.

Tim Powers, director of student aid policy at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said although there is a lot up in the air under the Trump administration, the students need to be kept in mind.

Powers said there would not be a large impact on the day-to-day operations of an institution but there would be a disproportional impact on students themselves, as they are the ones potentially hurt by these cuts.

“We would encourage higher education administrators to keep up the pressure and work with others to make sure their voices continue to be heard,” Powers said.

Sierra Guardiola can be reached at sguardiola@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @sierraguardiola