Colleges facing potential pressure to reduce excessive fees for food and books under Biden administration

New regulations are being considered by the Biden administration to address hidden fees in colleges such as those for food and textbooks.

This is part of a package of reforms that are currently being debated by the Education Department. The main focus of the discussions is to increase federal oversight of the higher education industry, which aligns with President Biden’s goal of reducing college costs and student loan debt.

“The president told me directly that he wants us to be equally as aggressive with debt relief and accountability,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in October.

Under the proposed changes, colleges and universities would no longer be allowed to keep excess funds from low-income students’ meal plans that are paid for using federal financial aid.

Many colleges offer flexible meal funds to students, called “flex” accounts, which can be used to cover food expenses. These accounts receive money from the federal government as part of financial aid programs. However, if students don’t use all the money in the accounts, some schools end up keeping the remaining funds, which the Education Department argues is unfair. According to Greg Martin, an Education Department official, this represents a significant amount of student money.

Many colleges use federal financial aid money from the Education Department to pay for students' meal plans.

Another proposed change is the elimination of automatic book fees.

The new rules would prohibit colleges and universities from automatically charging students for books and supplies. Currently, schools can include these fees in the overall “tuition and fees” amount, even if students can find cheaper alternatives elsewhere. The Education Department is concerned that this lack of transparency prevents students from accessing more affordable options.

Daniel Williamson, managing director of the education nonprofit OpenStax, welcomed this change, stating that automatic billing programs often result in students being charged for resources that could have been obtained for free or a lower cost.

In a statement last week, Undersecretary James Kvaal from the Biden administration’s Education Department described the proposed rules as “consumer-friendly policies” that will assist more college students in paying for school and improving the higher education system.

Opponents argue that the new rules may actually increase costs for students.

The Education Department’s proposed changes have prompted mixed reactions. David Cohen, representing proprietary institutions, believes the alterations to meal plan policies are not a good idea, asserting that colleges provide meal plans and not restaurants.

Robert Nelson, the president of the National Association of College and University Food Services, warned that the proposal could potentially raise prices for students in other ways. He stated that his organization hasn’t taken a stance on the plan yet, but it could negatively impact students’ finances. Emmanual Guillory from the American Council on Education cautioned that colleges often utilize excess federal funds to offset other costs, and passing the burden back to students could result in increased expenses.

However, Magin Misael Sanchez, representing civil rights organizations and consumer advocates in the talks, expressed his support for the proposed changes. As a low-income college student, he believes that the extra funds could have been helpful for covering moving expenses and other hidden costs associated with higher education.

The Education Department will continue discussing these policies in the coming months and is required to publish the final version of the new rules by November.