Congress Is a Culprit in Student Aid Problem Lawmakers Want Rules Bent When They Apply to Schools in Their States

Article excerpt

AT HEARINGS ON student financial aid fraud in 1993, senators wondered why the Education Department had failed to crack down on ineligible schools that continued to receive millions of federal dollars.

Part of the answer was right under their noses.

Interviews and government documents show that members of Congress themselves often make it hard for the department to enforce the rules on home-state schools. Losses to defaulted loans and wasted grants run into the billions of dollars each year.

A stark example occurred just a few months before the hearings when Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., called department officials to a meeting on Capitol Hill. The purpose was to lobby the department to unconditionally approve Mercy College's proposed takeover of the bankrupt Center for Media Arts in New York.

The college wanted to use the center as a satellite campus but wanted to avoid having to repay $900,000 in federal tuition refunds due to the center's students. The department was insisting that the students - and the taxpayers - be protected as a condition of the takeover.

Nadler, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, R-N.Y., and six aides to other New York lawmakers lectured the bureaucrats for almost four hours, not letting them go until 8:15 p.m., according to a written summary of the meeting.

"The amount of political pressure exerted against the department was truly extraordinary in this case," Diane Sedicum, a department official, wrote in a memorandum a few days after the meeting of April 28, 1993.

She called the session politically charged, volatile and potentially intimidating.

Nadler denies that he was exerting undue pressure.

"This was a constituency problem, and I was trying to get a bureaucracy to interpret their rules reasonably," he said. He had no leverage over the department's budget and made no threats, Nadler said, although he acknowledged being forceful.

"What in New York is regarded as mild discourse, here is regarded as heavy pressure. Maybe it's cultural," he joked.

Ultimately, the takeover bid failed and the media school folded.

David Longanecker, the department assistant secretary who oversees student aid, said he saw the pressure as part of the normal give-and-take between the department and Congress. Most of it is "wholly appropriate," he said, although he acknowledged that it could feel threatening to enforcement personnel.

He said that only once during his two-year tenure has he felt truly uncomfortable with a request from a member of Congress, "where a person suggested retribution. I thought the overture from the congressperson was out of line. There was clearly a sort of quid pro quo suggested. …