August 17, 2006

Mr. Fred Sellers
U.S. Department of Education
P.O. Box 33184
Washington, DC 20033-3184

Dear Mr. Sellers,

We write on behalf of the members of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) to submit comments on the Interim Final Regulations published in the July 3, 2006 Federal Register to implement the Academic Competitiveness Grant and Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant programs.

Founded in 1910, AACRAO is a nonprofit, voluntary, professional association of more than 10,000 higher education admissions and registration professionals who represent approximately 2,500 institutions in more than 30 countries.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), founded in 1937, is an organization of more than 9,000 professionals from around the world dedicated to serving students as they make choices about pursuing postsecondary education.

Members of AACRAO and NACAC recognize the extraordinary challenges involved in the rapid implementation of these programs. They appreciate that a number of the programs' most fundamental shortcomings are due to the highly imperfect underlying statute. They also understand that the first year of implementation for any program”let alone programs as unprecedented in their policy goals, eligibility criteria and data needs as these”will involve obstacles and difficulties. The members of our two associations”high school guidance counselors, admissions officers, registrars, and financial aid administratorsrepresent the front-line professionals charged with making these programs work for students. We assure you that our members are committed to doing all they can to assist you with a successful launch of these programs.

We applaud the Department for an excellent job of keeping institutions informed of its plans and thank you and your senior staff for actively engaging the community in attempting to deal with some of the intractable problems of the legislative framework. The Department's valiant efforts have, in fact, resolved some of the most daunting challenges associated with implementing the programs. However, we regret to see that the regulations also make interpretive choices that exacerbate the problems of an already flawed statute. Several of these choices are so ill-advised that we believe the programs will simply not work if the Department continues to insist on them. In addition, there are areas that require clarification and improvement.

Definition of Academic Year Is Unworkable

The first, and most pressing, problem with the July 3 regulations is their unworkable use of the Title IV statutory definition of academic year for purposes of handling grade-level progression for ACG and SMART Grants. In our conversations with your senior staff, we have explained in some detail the havoc this odd choice (i.e., 24 credit hours or equivalent earned over 30 weeks) would wreak on campuses. We believe the Department itself would be hard-pressed to comprehend, let alone explain, grade-level progression under the proposed definition, especially as it would relate to students' standing in their programs and their eligibility for other aid programs. We can report to you that our members are bewildered by the confusing interplay of definitions, and are gravely concerned about the chaos that the definition would cause. We believe that the Department has other regulatory options under the statute. For purposes of ACG and SMART Grants, the only operationally workable definition of academic year would be one based on credit accumulation and students' standing in their program based on institutional policy. We believe such a definition would be consistent with both the statute and the Department's other regulatory pronouncements.

Eight-term Transcript Verification Is Unmanageable

A second operational requirement of immediate concern to our members is the regulations' requirement that institutions analyze post-graduation high school transcripts to document the students' completion of rigorous program of study. As you are well-aware, the admissions process at U.S. institutions typically begins and ends in advance of high school graduation for traditional students. The timing of the admissions process, therefore, does not accommodate the practice the Department is seeking to impose on institutions. In fact, some high schools do not even produce completed transcripts until late in the summer. The transcripts that institutions review are six- or seven-term high school transcripts that, in the vast majority of cases, serve as perfect predictors of course-by-course completion. We believe that the Department can rely on these transcripts just as securely as institutions do for their own purposes. In those rare cases when a student's performance deviates from the partial transcript in a material way, institutions withdraw their offer of admission. Thus, the Department would be protected by the fact that the student is either not allowed to enroll or would be required to withdraw.

Mandatory Institutional Participation

In section 691.7, the regulations mandate that institutions that offer one or more eligible programs for ACG or SMART Grant purposes and that participate in the Federal Pell Grant program must also participate in the ACG or SMART Grant program. The preamble also indicates that a corresponding change is being made to participation requirements for the Pell Grant program. We strongly object to the Department's attempt to bundle participation in unrelated programs and force institutions to make an all-or-nothing choice with regard to program participation. Nothing in current law mandates participation in one aid program as condition of participation in another, and the matter is rightly left to the discretion of institutions, a practice that we urge the Department to continue. Institutions have every incentive to enable their students to access all the available funds for which they might be eligible. At the same time, institutions have a responsibility and a corresponding right to only participate in programs that they can administer efficiently and in an accountable manner. It is conceivable that an institution may conclude that the regulatory burdens associated with the programs far outweigh their benefits, or that an institution decides that it cannot administer the programs. It is unclear as to why the Department would wish to use the threat of expulsion from a different and unrelated program to force such an institution to participate against their own best judgment. The inclusion of this language may be construed by some as reflecting the Department's concern that the ACG/SMART Grant regulations are likely to be so onerous as to cause institutions to forgo participation in the programs altogether. If this is, in fact, a concern, the best remedy would be to promulgate reasonable regulations not to issue an edict that forces compliance with unreasonable ones.

The Regulations Confuse the IB Diploma Program and IB Courses

We endorse ACG's substantive goal, which is to provide an incentive for states to steer more students into rigorous secondary school programs. We commend the Department for attempting to provide several options for students to establish the eligibility of their programs in the regulations. There is, however, one remaining problem that we would like to bring to your attention.

Subsection 691.16(d)(4) seems to confuse the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program with stand-alone IB courses. We concur with what appears to be the intent of the regulations, i.e., that a score of "4" or higher on at least two (we assume Standard Level) IB courses would be construed to qualify their curriculum as rigorous. But, merely correcting the infelicitous formulation will not suffice unless the regulations also separately recognize the IB Diploma Program as rigorous. The IB Diploma Program is an exceptionally demanding curriculum that enrolls the most highly motivated secondary students. It is, in the minds of the vast majority of admissions officials, the most rigorous nationally available high school curriculum. The Secretary's failure to recognize this important curriculum, for which many colleges and universities offer up to one full year of collegiate-level credit, would be a glaring mistake since most of the Secretarially recognized curricula are likely to be less rigorous. Accordingly, we propose that subsection (4) be re-drafted, and a new subsection (5) be added, with the subsequent subsections renumbered as follows:

(4) The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program.

(5) Any secondary school program for a student who completes at least two International Baccalaureate courses sponsored by the International Baccalaureate Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, and receives a score of "4" or higher on the examination for at least two of those courses.


The Regulations Inappropriately Restrict ACG/SMART Eligibility to Pell Recipients

In restricting eligibility for ACG and SMART Grants to Pell recipients (as opposed to Pell-eligible students), the Department is exceeding its statutory authority and is arbitrarily denying a federal entitlement to otherwise eligible students. Nothing in the statute supports or authorizes the Department's added requirement that ACG/SMART Grant recipients actually receive a Pell grant. In light of the Department's decision to limit the amount of the award to unmet need, it is difficult to see the rationale for this additional restriction. For Pell-eligible students who have already used their Pell award, the receipt of an ACG or SMART Grant would be of critical importance. The very students, therefore, that would most benefit from these programs are arbitrarily denied an award.

SMART Grant Eligibility Based on Major

We are concerned to learn that the CIP codes published thus far fail to recognize a number of academic disciplines that would, by every definition, fit the major field eligibility criteria for SMART Grants. Some scientific fields appear to have been omitted, we assume inadvertently. In addition, it appears that the CIP codes for eligible languages may be much too narrowly identified for purposes of available undergraduate majors. We urge the Department to review its published CIP list to ensure that all intended major fields are correctly identified.

We are also very concerned about the addition of a regulatory requirement in 691.15(c)(2)(ii) that even a student who has formally declared a major must enroll "in the courses necessary both to complete the degree program and to fulfill the requirements of the intended eligible field." The statute clearly indicates that declaring an eligible major satisfies the major field requirement for SMART Grants. The Department's additional requirement, which seems to mandate a more granular course-by-course analysis on a term-by-term basis, is susceptible to numerous conflicting interpretations. There is no absolutely rigid paradigmatic course schedule against which registrars can check SMART Grant recipients' coursework. Any student who has, pursuant to institutional policies, declared a major is, ipso facto¸ enrolled in coursework that satisfies that institution's and that major's requirements. Registrars can certainly identify students who have met the institutional and departmental criteria for declaring a major. The Department assumes that the registrar can, in addition to this, also confirm that the student is taking the "right kinds of courses," a fuzzy and operationally meaningless construct. Would an Electrical Engineering student that drops Chemistry suddenly be deemed not to be enrolled in the right coursework even if institutional policies don't automatically expel the student from the program?

We believe this requirement will be confusing for campus officials because it is unclear as to what it is that the Department is demanding. While retaining it for those students who are unable to declare a major because of institutional policies makes sense, applying it to students who have, in fact, declared a major is inappropriate and unnecessary. Accordingly, we propose that 691.15(c)(2)(ii) be re-designated as 691.15 (c)(2)(i)(B)(3) so as to only apply to students unable to declare an eligible major.

Grade Point Average (GPA) Reference Appears to Create New Federal Definition

Both ACG and SMART Grants include references to GPA as part of their respective eligibility criteria. The Department wisely avoids micro-management of academic matters by deferring to institutional policies with regard to GPA calculations except in two cases.

First, in 690.15(e), recognizing that transfer students do not have a GPA at the receiving institution, the regulations define a transfer GPA as the average of grades in courses for which a receiving institution grants academic credit. While this is an unusual concept at most institutions and does involve a new federally mandated calculation, the requirement makes eminent sense because it enables transfer students to establish GPA-based eligibility and because the regulations indicate that institutions can revert to their own standard grading policies for second and subsequent payment periods.

Second, in 691.15(c)(3), the regulations reference a "cumulative GPA through the most recently completed payment period of at least 3.0 or higher on a 4.0 scale, or the equivalent, consistent with other institutional measures for academic and title IV, HEA program purposes, in the student's eligible program [emphasis ours]." This language is ambiguous because it is not obvious whether it describes the cumulative GPA, the "major GPA", or a new calculated field that consists of the weighted average of a different subset of the students' coursework. If the Department intends to base student eligibility on cumulative GPA, then the italicized language should be deleted. If the Department is seeking to base academic eligibility on some subset of the students' coursework, then much more will be needed to properly define what is meant here. Many institutions do not currently calculate separate "Major GPA" or "Program GPA" for their students. Even where they are used, the terms can have varying meanings. At some institutions, all coursework that counts toward the major is factored into the calculation, while at others only specific courses listed in each student's matriculation-year bulletin are counted. We strongly urge the Department to delete the italicized language pending further discussions with the community to better understand what the substantive goals of the GPA threshold are and how best to articulate them.

As a minor edit, we also suggest that "at least 3.0 or higher" is a redundant formulation that can just as easily be expressed as either "at least 3.0" or as "3.0 or higher".

We thank you for the opportunity to share our concerns and suggestions, and stand ready to work with you in launching these programs.

Sincerely,

Jerome H. Sullivan
Executive Director
AACRAO

Joyce E. Smith
Executive Director
NACAC