Sunday, September 20, 2009

House backs bill to overhaul student loan program

That good ol' generous U.S. taxpayer again. How can the government give more to students and save money at the same time? It's cuckoo talk. And does anybody believe that a Federal bureaucracy will be more efficient than a private bank?

The House voted Thursday in favor of the biggest overhaul of college aid programs since their creation in the 1960s — a bill to oust private lenders from the student loan business and put the government in charge. The vote was 253-171 in favor of a bill that fulfills nearly all of President Obama's campaign promises for higher education: The measure ends subsidies for private lenders, boosts Pell Grants for needy students and creates a grant program to improve community colleges, among other things. "These are reforms that have been talked about for years, but they're always blocked by special interests and their lobbyists," Obama said Thursday during a rally at the University of Maryland.

"Well, because you voted for change in November, we're going to bring change in the House of Representatives today," the president said. Ending loan subsidies and turning control over to the government would save taxpayers an estimated $87 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Lawmakers would use that money to help make college more affordable, increasing the maximum Pell Grant by $1,400 to $6,900 over the next decade.

"The choice before us is clear. We can either keep sending these subsidies to banks or we can start sending them directly to students," said the bill's sponsor, California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Yet the money also would be spent on things that don't help pay for college, such as construction at K-12 schools and new preschool programs.

And while the measure would increase Pell Grants, it would do nothing to curb college costs, which rise much faster than Pell Grants do. In addition, the CBO says that when administrative costs and market conditions are considered, the savings from switching to direct government lending could be much lower, $47 billion instead of $87 billion.

Republicans warned that instead of saving the government money, as Democrats promise, the bill could wind up costing the government more money. "Unfortunately, the numbers just don't add up," said Minnesota Rep. John Kline, senior Republican on the Education Committee.

Lawmakers split largely along party lines on the bill, with only six Republicans in favor and three Democrats against. The measure goes next to the Senate, where its fate is a little less certain.

Obama didn't get his way on one thing: The president proposed earlier this year to take Pell Grants out of lawmakers' hands entirely, making the program an entitlement like Social Security and Medicare, which would have cost an estimated $117 billion — more than lawmakers have to spend. Under the measure, Pell Grants would rise slightly more than inflation over the next decade, increasing on average about 2.6% yearly, according to the bill's sponsors. However, the grants would still depend on annual spending bills and could rise less than promised, as has happened in the past.

Lawmakers met Obama halfway on the labyrinthine college aid form; Obama proposed to eliminate it altogether when he ran for president, but the bill would keep the form and shorten it.

As consumers, college students probably wouldn't notice much difference in their loans, which they would get through their schools. However, officials at several colleges worry they may not be able to make the switch to direct government loans in time for next year, and Education Department officials said this week they do not intend to extend the deadline.

More schools administer federal loans through the subsidized loan program than from the government's direct loan program. Private lenders made $56 billion in government-backed loans to more than 6 million students last year, compared with $14 billion in direct loans from the government.

Republicans argued it is wrong to put the government in near-total control of student lending. Many also worry about job losses in their districts. Private lenders employ more than 30,000 people whose jobs depend on the subsidized loan program, and the industry says many would be laid off. Sallie Mae, the biggest student lender, has about 8,500 employees in the program and probably would lay off about 30% of those workers. It still will have contracts to service federal loans. Its employees have held a series of town hall meetings and petition drives to involve local leaders in Pennsylvania, Florida, Delaware, New York and Indiana.

Democratic Rep. David Wu of Oregon said lenders still could make all the loans they want. "What will not happen anymore is making those student loans with taxpayer subsidies," he said.


Professor Fired, Escorted from Campus by Police over Mysterious ‘Sexual Harassment’ Charge Two Days after Complaining about Defects in Policy

The abuse of campus sexual harassment policies to punish dissenting professors has hit a new low at East Georgia College (EGC) in Swainsboro. Professor Thomas Thibeault made the mistake of pointing out—at a sexual harassment training seminar—that the school's sexual harassment policy contained no protection for the falsely accused. Two days later, in a Kafkaesque irony, Thibeault was fired by the college president for sexual harassment without notice, without knowing his accuser or the charges against him, and without a hearing. Thibeault turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"If you were to write a novel about the abuse of sexual harassment regulations to get rid of a dissenter, you couldn't do better than the real-life story of Thomas Thibeault," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Anyone with a modicum of respect for freedom of speech or simple fairness should be aghast at this blatant abuse of power by East Georgia College."

Thibeault's ordeal started shortly after August 5, 2009 when, during a faculty training session regarding the college's sexual harassment policy, he presented a scenario regarding a different professor and asked, "what provision is there in the Sexual Harassment policy to protect the accused against complaints which are malicious or, in this case, ridiculous?" Vice President for Legal Affairs Mary Smith, who was conducting the session, replied that there was no such provision to protect the accused, so Thibeault responded that "the policy itself is flawed."

Two days later, Thibeault was summoned to EGC President John Bryant Black's office. According to Thibeault's written account of the meeting, which was sent to Black and which Black has not disputed, Thibeault met with Black and Smith. Black told Thibeault that he "was a divisive force in the college at a time when the college needed unity" and that Thibeault must resign by 11:30 a.m. or be fired and have his "long history of sexual harassment ... made public." This unsubstantiated allegation took Thibeault by surprise. Black added that Thibeault would be escorted off campus by Police Chief Drew Durden and that Black had notified the local police that he was prepared to have Thibeault arrested for trespassing if he returned to campus. At no point was Thibeault presented with the charges against him or given any chance to present a defense. Refusing to resign, Thibeault understood that he was fired.

Most likely realizing that he had fired Thibeault without any of the due process mandated by Georgia's Board of Regents, Black then began attempting to justify Thibeault's firing after the fact. On August 11, Black wrote Thibeault to say that since Thibeault had failed to resign by the deadline, "EGC has begun dismissal proceedings. ... [A] faculty committee has been appointed to conduct an informal inquiry." He then paradoxically wrote, "Their charge is to advise me whether or not dismissal proceedings shall be undertaken." Meanwhile, Thibeault still had not been provided with any charges, he was still banned from campus, and he still appeared to be fired-with the "dismissal proceedings" occurring after the fact.

Then, on August 25, Black wrote Thibeault again, claiming for the first time that Thibeault had actually been suspended, not fired: "the committee's finding was that there is sufficient evidence to support your suspension." Black added that Thibeault was about to be terminated for sexual harassment, that the charges finally would be sent upon request, and that Thibeault finally could request a hearing. Thibeault requested the charges on August 28 but has received no response. His lawyer also has inquired for weeks with no response.

"How can a public college professor in the United States be fired and kicked off campus by the president and police but, more than a month later, still have no idea why?" asked Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. "Do Georgia's taxpayers know this is how their colleges are treating their professors?"

FIRE outlined many of these shocking violations of due process and freedom of speech in a letter to University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. on August 27, with copies to Black and Smith. None of them has responded. Neither Black nor Smith has even bothered to comment on the discrepancies between Thibeault's account and Black's erratic letters.

"It is hard to imagine a worse failure of due process in this case," Kissel said. "Nobody knows what the actual allegations are because they are being kept secret, even from Thibeault himself. In the stunning absence of any charges, evidence, or hearings, it is clear that EGC has punished Professor Thibeault for speaking out against a flawed harassment policy."


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