Rene Tiongquico: HEOC Alumnus Works to Preserve and Improve Federal Aid for Students

The U.S. Dept. of Education program specialist shared his experiences of life and work on The Hill, including the Oct. 2013 federal employee furlough.

As a former student on financial aid at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, Rene Tiongquico (’09, B.A., History/Education Studies; ’10, M.A., Higher Education and Organizational Change) knows both the intrinsic and dollar value of higher education. Today, he works on federal student aid policy for the U.S. Department of Education as a program specialist.

Last October, Tiongquico was one of 800,000 government employees who were furloughed for 16 days. The San Francisco Bay Area native recently took the time to share this experience with Ampersand, as well as his own financial aid experience, an average day at the office, and how UCLA Ed and IS prepared him to help change the landscape of funding education at the national level.

Ampersand: Why did you decide to work for the U.S. Department of Education?

Rene Tiongquico: I actually happened to run across the job posting by chance. After graduating in June 2010 and spending the summer abroad, my original plan was to stay in California – either the San Francisco Bay or Los Angeles area. I was scouring the Department of Education’s website, and they had this special hiring authority for recent graduates. I applied for the job and flew out to DC for the interview. When they made the offer, I thought why not? If there was a more opportune time to explore another city, it was then, even if this job deviated from the original plan to stay in California.

It’s an honor and privilege to work for an entity that helps Americans achieve their dream of a postsecondary education. Because I received financial aid during my time at UCLA, I felt a debt of gratitude that the taxpayers were willing to make an investment in my pursuit of a postsecondary education.

&: What does an average day at work look like for you?

RT: This was my schedule one day a few weeks back:

I arrived at the office and caught up on reading emails. I then looked through the Federal Register, the U.S. Government’s daily journal, to see if any notices or new rules or regulations impacted student aid programs. I also used this time to read the Department’s daily news digest, which included news articles on higher education.

At the request of my supervisor, I researched areas that were affected by the Colorado floods and schools around those areas, some of which were declared disaster areas by President Obama. I reviewed the existing policy guidance for schools impacted by a presidentially-declared disaster, and called the Colorado Office of Management and notified them of the regulatory and statutory relief provided to schools when they are impacted by a disaster. I sent a follow-up email to the person in charge in Colorado and provided them all of our guidance by email.

Usually I try to bring my lunch from home, or sometimes I’ll go for a quick bike ride to get my blood moving – Washington, D.C. has a fantastic bikesharing program for locals and tourists alike.

I called a federal agency that works with refugees and resettled people, and determined a certain group’s eligibility for federal public benefits, including financial aid for education. I discussed our authorizing statute and issues the community is facing, and got feedback on what the Department is authorized to do. I provided a summary of the phone call to colleagues in another office as well as our office of general counsel.

I had a conference call with our regional offices. When new policies are developed by Washington, D.C. headquarters, we give our regional offices an overview so that they can disseminate the message to schools around the country. We also use this time to answer any outstanding questions that the community has of the Department.

I worked with a colleague on developing a plan for record retention for our unit so that we are in compliance with record retention rules. Then, I reviewed draft regulations for negotiated rulemaking in the coming weeks, and prepared a chart for internal discussion among senior Department officials.

I exercised at the Department’s gym; then I went home.

&: Is there anything about your job that you didn’t expect when you first started?

RT: I was surprised at the level of consideration the Department gives to the community’s comments and opinions. When I first joined the Department, we were drafting controversial regulations that got a little bit of media attention. The Department received over 90,000 comments about the regulations, and took the time to read each comment and address the concerns from the community.

&: How did your experience at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies prepare you for your career?

RT: I am proud of the faculty, staff, and students’ breadth of knowledge about higher education. No matter how specialized we get in our research areas, the basic questions need to be addressed: what is the purpose of higher education; who should attend [college]; what should be taught; what is the role of the federal government in higher education; and others. Specifically, it was in Education 250A that I began seriously thinking about these questions, and to be able to think about these basic questions has served me well.

&: What do you think is the largest challenge facing financial aid in the United States?

RT: The Federal Pell Grant program’s uncertain future may impact our national commitment in providing educational equity to all Americans. The grant program provides educational funding for the country’s neediest students, who would otherwise have few, if any, means to meet the cost of education. In fact, the percent of Federal Pell Grant recipients at an institution is still used as a proxy to determine how many low-income students a school serves. In my view, the taxpayers have remained committed to providing educational assistance for those least able to pay so that they can pursue a postsecondary education.

Today, the Pell Grant program is under attack. Critics argue that recipients are not finishing their programs in time and that the cost of the program has skyrocketed. As a result, some members of Congress and others are adamant about tightening eligibility standards, and are looking to cut from the program – but at whose expense? The players likely to lose in this battle are low-income students who probably don’t have as much political clout as other groups. And taxpayers should be deeply concerned about the implications of needy students not matriculating, and that divestment from the Pell Grant program could deter the poorest students from pursuing postsecondary education.

&: I saw that you were furloughed in October of 2013 during the government shutdown. What was that like?

RT: That was a very interesting time. I was furloughed when there was a lapse in appropriations on October 1, 2013. The U.S. Department of Education was one of the cabinet-level agencies with the largest number of non-excepted employees. While I was unable to conduct official business during the shutdown, I still kept up with what was going on in the field of higher education by reading publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education, to see how the shutdown impacted the field.

Scientists with funding from the National Science Foundation had their funding or projects halted; researchers couldn’t access vital federal resources such as archives; and more. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do other than stand by and wait until the politicians re-opened the government. On the evening of October 16, Congress passed the continuing resolution that would reopen the government, and President Obama signed that bill into law in the wee hours of October 17. I was in my seat at work at 9 a.m. later that morning.

&: What advice would you give to current students pursuing careers in education and education policy?

RT: If you have the opportunity, spend some time in Washington, D.C. Some of the key players in the field of higher education are headquartered in the nation’s capitaland be curious about all facets of higher education. You don’t have to be an expert on everything, but having a good grasp on the subjects will only make you an informed citizen and a better policy wonk.


Above: U.S. Department of Education program specialist and HEOC alumnus Rene Tiongquico (at left) with Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA, 15th Dist.). Courtesy of Rene Tiongquico