Regents: Should students have to repay grants if they don't graduate?

2012-11-17T05:45:00Z 2014-10-03T14:28:23Z Regents: Should students have to repay grants if they don't graduate?By MARTIN KIDSTON of the Missoulian
November 17, 2012 5:45 am  • 

How to motivate students’ progress toward a college degree – and whether a student who fails to achieve a degree should be required to repay free federal grants – surfaced as potential hot-potato issues Friday for the Montana Board of Regents.

The board wrapped up its November agenda at the University of Montana in a meeting that covered everything from veteran outreach programs to Native American retention efforts to how to make Montana campuses more energy efficient.

Clayton Christian, the state’s commissioner of higher education, opened the accountability debate by noting that other states are working to create incentives to coax students through the university system in a reasonable amount of time.

Exactly what’s reasonable wasn’t determined, nor were the incentives – or possible penalties – fully named, but the debate emerged as a new issue the regents will be looking to resolve in the months ahead.

“Do we put incentives out there to convince students to complete their degree in four years, or do we increase fees if students take longer than four years?” Christian said. “How do we help students confine this to four years? It’s the best thing for them, and it’s the best thing for us.”

The issue is closely tied to affordability and financial aid, and regents already have formed an Affordability Task Force to look at the matter on a deeper level.

Adam Cook, a student at Montana Tech and a member of the student Senate, was appointed to the new task force. Regent Todd Buchanan of Billings invited Cook to address the board Friday.

Cook argued that when a student receives a federal grant, he or she is not accountable for that money. He called it free money provided by taxpayers to the university to help cover the student’s education.

“As the system is now, there’s nothing to stop a student who is three years or four years into his degree path from dropping out,” Cook said. “I’m suggesting we attach the student to that debt. It’s his debt and he owns it until he graduates school, at which point he’s absolved of that debt.”

Cook said roughly 30 percent of grant recipients complete their degree. The other 70 percent, he suggested, fail to do so. He believes the later group should be accountable for repaying the grants they accept in college so the money is available to others who intend to earn a degree.

“That money could go to other students,” Cook said. “It reduces the gamble. You’re getting 100 percent return on the investment.”

Regent Pat Williams voiced concern with the proposal. He said family issues, not motivation, sometimes prevent a student from graduating.

Punishing the student financially for not getting a degree, he said, was a steep penalty.

“I understand the value of accountability among students, but there are a lot of moving pieces in loans and grants that are beyond a student’s control,” Williams said. “Graduation is sometimes beyond a student’s control and that penalty is pretty high.”

Williams also argued that by investing in a student’s education, the government hopes that the student will succeed and pay back into the system. It’s a gamble, he admitted, but education was worth the risk and the student wasn’t always at fault.


Ron Muffick, director of student financial services with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the university system is already experimenting with a new incentive program.

The effort looks to reward full-time, first-year Montana freshmen who get good grades with a $1,000 grant in hopes of keeping them on a timely degree path. This year, 697 students qualified for the program.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about incentivizing financial aid,” Muffick said. “We determined we’d award these $1,000 grants to these 697 students in the spring if they complete satisfactory academic progress in the fall. We hope it will reduce their student loan debt and help them progress toward a degree.”

Keeping on the issue of money, Muffick said the state invited Montana’s public colleges and universities to submit proposals for funding to begin financial literacy programs.

Around 64 percent of Montana students are borrowing more than $25,000 to complete college. At two-year schools, 71 percent of students are borrowing more than $18,000 to obtain their associate degree.

The new program looks to make students more aware of the costs of borrowing money. It aims to better inform them of their responsibilities in paying back their loans.

However, just eight schools answered the call for proposals and each received funding. Muffick said the state has roughly $290,000 to award to schools for financial literacy programs.

“Campuses have different ideas on how to approach the issue,” he said. “Next summer, we can sit down with each campus and look at what worked and how to apply it to other campuses to achieve a consistent theme and a coordinated approach.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or @martinkidston.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(15) Comments

  1. shanershaaane
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    shanershaaane - November 18, 2012 1:04 am
    It's thinking like this that I hope will sway more Americans away from the business of acquiring commodified education-units to be exchanged for bland and/or detrimental existences. I'd like to call it "narrow-minded" thinking rather than idiotic to assume there is no value, or rather there be cause for punitive measures for achieving an advanced education with no intentions of earning a degree. Grants (from what a mere 3 years of English and Logic tell me) are money "granted" to you so that you may be able to pay the rest of the inflated cost of seeing the grooming boutique of the upper-middle class firsthand. No takebacks. Educated individuals make for a better citizen. A nation of 4 year graduates however, sounds like a robotic empire to me.
  2. truckdriver
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    truckdriver - November 17, 2012 10:27 pm
    they talk about attracting more people to college, .Then they talk about forced repayment of federal grant monies,if a student doesn't graduate.
    the regents are STATE, They can not tell people waht todo with there FED. grants.
    If they are seriuos about getting more people in college. LOWER the rates.
  3. MensRightsAdvocate
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    MensRightsAdvocate - November 17, 2012 2:58 pm
    I was a student at UM twice in the 1980's and the college cut academics, library services and focused on building the new stadium. When faculty, students and staff asked for explanations about the cuts the college ignored everyone asking questions. I left UM and graduated from a college in the PNW dedicated to students.
    I think the regents need to stop raising tuition on students, work with colleges to help students graduate within three or four years, and talk with all current and former students who leave college to learn why they didn't return. More often than not the students will tell regents what needs improving, which is the way the higher education system should work here in Montana. The students after all are the consumers who made the choice to go to a Montana college.
  4. LilyVonShtupp
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    LilyVonShtupp - November 17, 2012 12:49 pm
    It's not a 70% fail rate. Big picture. UM KNOWS that more than half of their freshmen will drop out before the end of year 2. They rely upon these students to fund the school. They don't have the resources to deal with that many juniors and seniors. It's a broken system. It makes no sense that we demand and expect elementary and high schools to be provided to every child as a free "public" education but stop right there and say "sorry kids, that philosophy doesn't extend to learning a useful trade."
  5. LilyVonShtupp
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    LilyVonShtupp - November 17, 2012 11:09 am
    It's a misleading number, I think. The UM admits a huge number of freshman that they KNOW are not going to graduate. Freshman are moneymakers. They have to live in the dorms, eat at the university, etc. The only real cost is hiring a few extra professors to teach large classes of english 101 and Intro to Sociology. And if you come from out of state, even better, because you pay a LOT more for tuition. If we'd just fund actual education properly, it would eliminate all this.
    Incidentally, 30/70 is also the ratio of my grants to loans...I am already paying back 70% of the money I receive and now these tunnel-visioned regents want me to pay back 100% if something goes wrong and I don't graduate on time?
  6. The_Boneshackler
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    The_Boneshackler - November 17, 2012 11:01 am
    Penal colonies. America needs more penal colonies. Students who fail to meet grant requirements or who cannot find a job and default on their student loans can be sent to these colonies in order to pay their debt to the banks and to society. That might even be a good way to bring low cost manufacturing back to the United States.
  7. DonaldM
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    DonaldM - November 17, 2012 10:19 am
    Assuming that the article was written accurately, I have some observations:

    The suggestion(regarding Federal student financial aid) of student Cook can't be done because there is no legal authority for the University System to do so. If a student receives a grant for a specific term and does not complete that term, then the grant must be repaid to be eligible for a grant for a subsequent term. Unless fraud can be proven they can't be required to repay the grant it they don't apply for one in the future. And then the only consequence is no more grants.

    If the student completed the term but failed most courses they can't be required to repay the grant but can be denied future grants

    When these programs were first created by Act of Congress in 1965 they were designed for "disadvantaged" students(and still are). The Regulations defined a full time student as one taking 3/4 of a full time load. To graduate college in 4 yrs. a student must complete 15 credits each term. At 12 credits per term it will take 5 yrs to graduate. Most financial aid policies are based upon a 5 yr. "course of study".

    A students progress is evaluated after every term, or academic yr. Their subsequent aid is denied if they are not on schedule to graduate within 5 academic yrs. But, they can't be required to repay grants received.

    It is true that many students, everywhere, over the decades have used Colleges and Universities as welfare drops. As well as escapes from reality. Strong administration at the Financial Aid Office, with support of the "Administration"(this is absolutely necessary) can mitigate this significantly.

    This is a complex issue and my remarks are superficial. I would recommend, if they are serious in studying this and making policy in this area, that the get a working Student Financial Officer on their Committee.

    And, I agree with everything Pat Williams has said and hope that he is taken seriously and listened to.

  8. retiredmsla
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    retiredmsla - November 17, 2012 9:20 am
    In the simplest terms, the regents act as both fools and knaves. As a graduate of UM and a retired faculty member, I can speak with some knowledge about tuition and student motivation. When I returned from the army in the 1960's I was able to work in a sawmill and mke enough money ($3400 a year) to pay tuition, books, rent and food. The regents are a bunch of rich guys who have little reason to ask how a student from, say, White Sulfur Springs might come to Missoula, find a job and go to UM. When I went to UM the state's taxpayers paid the majority of the tuition. Now, they pay only a small portion.

    Student loans resemble the loans made that produced the housing crisis. Students are encouraged to borrow money, to pay inflated tuition for courses of study that can in many instances never be expected to produce enough income for the student to ever get out of debt. Then, the state points at the student and calls them unmotivated. Sort of Montana's version of a company store.

    I propose that if the regents really want to deal with this issue, they should sit systematically with large numbers of students to learn what is happening on the ground. Perhaps they could deputize Pat Williams ( the compassionate one) to undertake this task. Honesty would compel an amount for their product that reflects it's value if the student has to use a Montana job to pay for it.
  9. Bandit218
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    Bandit218 - November 17, 2012 9:05 am
    Lily. The graduation/dropout rate has nothing to do with completing 75% of your the semesters credits. You can complete 100% of the credits through 3 years and drop out without a degree to show for it. Obviously extenuating circumstances arise but a 70% fail rate is more than extenuating circumstances at work in my opinion.
  10. BobbyLee
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    BobbyLee - November 17, 2012 7:59 am
    It's laughable that these people talk about concern for efficiency and students' costs when the simplest option is to reduce degree courses to 3 years, just like many other countries have always done. It's pretty sad that when looking into a degree my wife found it cheaper to go to New Zealand than study at the UofM across the street! The course was far shorter and more worthwhile, not cluttered with liberal arts bullsh*t that she'd never need, and more respected globally. Indian, New Zealand and Finnish universities put many American universities to shame, and it's only because education in America has become such a business - witness the dumb-nuts absurdity of merging the practically minded COT with the academically minded liberal arts UofM! An idea that is solely about money.

    The UofM is designed to turn out academics and professors. When there are not enough jobs for professors they become administrators, and it's widely known that the worst people to run a university are academics - the UofM is a prime example of this. The job of a university in the 21st century is to get people prepared for a working life in the 21st century - and those people are not academics. In that, the UofM fails miserably because it has hardly changed it's education process since the bloody Renaissance! And those running the place are supposes to be smart?! God help us!

    Options for improvement litter the world, but the UofM will never look elsewhere because any improvement in efficiency ultimately means less money for them. So don't expect student costs to go down anytime soon. That the ASUM isn't fighting that argument proves how bloody malleable and naive they are - stupid is another term. Wake up! Pluck your heads out of Engstom's *ss and see things for how they are. Because the $285,000 year fat cat giving you advice got fat for a reason, and it has nothing to do with brains or education and everything to do with marketing bullsh*t.
  11. Mtsleep
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    Mtsleep - November 17, 2012 4:36 am
    Grants make up a small portion of the finances required to complete school for most students. Yes, some people don't finish for whatever reason and there are always going to be a handful of people blatantly abusing the system. Instead of seeking to punish people who are unable to finish (many for legitimate reasons), I think the Montana university system should focus first on how they can improve graduation rates. UM in particular has a dismal one. First, urge less prepared students, during the admissions process, to study at a two year school and complete some general education classes to prove they can maintain their grades. Currently, they accept anyone who can pay and it is really just a way for them to secure federal loan dollars at the student and tax payers expense. Also, offer some sort of career counseling with the loans/grants. Don't crush dreams completely but drive home the point that you will have to pay back your loans, lay out the financial part of it and let kids know an art degree might not cut it. Finally, create an 'intervention' program to identify students who might be struggling early in the semester. Most professors don't even submit midterm grades anymore. Even if they do, it's hard to turn grades around halfway through. They should be required to submit grades every four weeks to the Registrar, so they can step in and offer guidance early to keep people on track. Solving the core problems contributing to low graduation rates would go a long way to making sure grant dollars aren't wasted.
  12. hellgatenights
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    hellgatenights - November 17, 2012 2:53 am
    It is pathetic and unacceptable that the state runs these schools like profit centers. The state should get out of higher education......there are plenty of more populous states that can foot the bill for these schools ans there are many very good private schools.

    This makes fiscal sense as well as we are in the slow and steady decline in middle class jobs and big company taxes. This trend will continue for decades to come eroding the tax base......and I do not want to pay for other people to go to school.....period.
  13. Bones
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    Bones - November 16, 2012 10:58 pm
    You gotta admit though...30/70 is a pretty ugly split..
  14. Stan Reck
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    Stan Reck - November 16, 2012 9:56 pm
    This is like saying if you go out to dinner and only eat 3/4 you shouldn't have to pay. Yes you should pay if you drop out. Common sense should rule the day, but it doesn't.
  15. LilyVonShtupp
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    LilyVonShtupp - November 16, 2012 8:54 pm
    Mr. Cook, I'm not sure that you know what you're talking about. Any student receiving a federal grant is placed on financial aid suspension if they do not complete at least 75% of the credits they attempt every semester. This is to keep people from signing up, getting a refund, and dropping out. Most of us (and if we receive any federal money, we sign a statement acknowledging it) understand this. Sometimes things just happen. Cancer, mental illness, car accidents, natural disasters...should all of these things, completely out of our control, determine whether or not we work a minimum wage service job for the rest of our life? Like Mr. Williams said, financial aid is part of the social contract--the government gets an educated work force, which is good for the economy and society, and those of us not born with a silver spoon in our mouth get a chance at something better.
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