Washington Watch: House may soon release bill to rework HEA

Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. (Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce)

Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), appear poised to introduce a Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization bill in the coming weeks.

In all likelihood, there will be things in the bill that the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) strongly supports, other things we won’t be too happy with and still others that the association would have wanted included. Community college leaders had great success in encouraging Congress to reinstate the year-round Pell Grant earlier this year, so we hope lawmakers will continue to listen to their recommendations to help community colleges better serve their students.

Below is a list of AACC’s key priorities on the legislation, which touches on everything from student aid to reporting requirements.

Pell Grant program

First and foremost for AACC’s public policy agenda is the Pell Grant program, which has strong bipartisan support. There is no talk of program cutbacks or limitations in reauthorization. It is possible, however, that an effort may be made to define “full-time” enrollment as 15 semester credits, as opposed to 12 at present.

A big reauthorization issue is how to ensure the program’s stability and future growth. AACC strongly supports indexing the maximum grant to inflation, as was done in the 2010 Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. However, funding this policy will be a challenge; previously, funding came through savings from the transition to full direct lending.

AACC also supports extending the lifetime limit on Pell grants to 14 semesters (full-time equivalent), rather than the current 12, which is a problem for some community college students, particularly those who subsequently transfer. This change faces tough sledding, in part, because of the current emphasis on getting students to graduation quickly, in part because of its cost.

Funding for short-term programs

There’s been progress in gaining support to add Pell Grant eligibility for short-term workforce development. The bipartisan, bicameral JOBS Act is one widely regarded vehicle, while AACC has advanced a somewhat different proposal that emphasizes local discretion and has a cost ceiling on what could be used for this purpose (2 percent of a college’s previous year’s Pell Grant expenditures). However, new program authority equals new spending, and it’s not clear whether leaders of the committees support it. AACC’s advocacy on this issue continues.

Graduation rate metrics

In this key area, the association’s primary focus is to ensure that HEA reflects the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA) metrics of a six-year graduation rate and include transfers-out in a unified completion rate. The Comprehensive Student Achievement Information Act, S. 351 and H.R. 4215 — which AACC supports — embodies these priorities.

The U.S. Education Department (ED) recently released new Outcomes Measures (OM) that will influence congressional deliberations on this issue and may affect AACC’s advocacy, given that the OMs require tracking students for eight years, which is two years longer than AACC has advocated.

Washington Watch: House GOP tax bill detrimental to college students

Unit record data system

AACC continues to strongly support a national unit record data system (URDS) that follows students across institutions and is linked to federal wage records. There is bipartisan support on this in both chambers through S. 1121 and H.R. 2434 — but not everyone supports such a system, including the key policymaker, Virginia Foxx. Nevertheless, AACC continues to aggressively support the legislation and hopes that it will be voted on in committee markups.

Institutional discretion to limit loan amounts

AACC has long sought authority for institutions to set lower federal loan limits than those established in law, provided they do so for broad categories of students, have adequate safeguards against discrimination, and are done with a clearly articulated rationale. Why? Not all students are equally well situated to take out federal loans, irrespective of what the federal needs analysis methodology determines. Under the AACC proposal, individuals could appeal the institution’s policy.

Some key lawmakers have gotten the message, partly because of concerns about student debt. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has previously introduced legislation that would support such authority to colleges under certain conditions. Community college advocates should be aware that any such proposals will likely receive push back.

Institutional risk-sharing

Proposals to have institutions share some of the risk (i.e., cost) on student loans may pop up in both Senate and House HEA bills. Basically, colleges would be responsible for a portion of the costs of loan defaults, or if they have low student loan repayments rates – giving them some “skin in the game.”

AACC opposes this policy, both for practical reasons – most colleges don’t have the funds to do this – and for policy reasons – colleges currently don’t determine who receives a loan nor do they collect on them. It’s particularly unfair to assign financial risk to institutions committed to serve students who are less affluent and prepared for college.

Accreditation

It’s very possible that Congress may try to shape the accreditation process by altering the federal statute through which accreditors gain “recognition” from ED. AACC seeks to help accreditors maintain their traditional roles, and, in particular, limit their involvement in the enforcement of federal student aid provisions. However, lawmakers may advance legislation requiring accreditors to enforce some type of “bright line” outcomes standards. AACC opposed legislation along these lines in the last Congress.

Washington Watch updates congressional and federal agency activities and AACC advocacy efforts.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.