House Dems pitch comprehensive HEA bill

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, on Tuesday released the committee's legislation to rework the Higher Education Act. (Photo courtesy of the House Education and Labor Committee)

Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee on Tuesday introduced comprehensive legislation to rework the nation’s main higher education law that would, in part, make community college tuition-free through a federal-state partnership, invest more in developmental education and allow Pell grants to cover qualifying short-term training programs.

A centerpiece of the 1,165-page College Affordability Act is the proposed America’s College Promise, which would waive community college tuition and fees for all students in states that participate. The “first-dollar” plan would provide a federal match of $3 for every $1 invested by the state.

The bill also would make significant changes to the Pell Grant program. Aside from increasing the maximum award by $500 and permanently indexing the award to inflation, it would extend Pell Grant eligibility from 12 to 14 semesters and open the program to certain short-term training programs. In addition, students in prison would once again be allowed to access the grants.

The bill would provide grants to community colleges to improve developmental education using evidence-based reforms. It would include outcome goals and reporting requirements. It also would fund evidence-based programs to increase degree completion through academic and financial advising and other supports.

To encourage high schools to continue with postsecondary education, the House bill would create a matching grant program for institutions to create partnerships with K-12 school districts to support dual enrollment and early college high schools.

The bill also would nix a ban on “student unit records,” which prevents the U.S. Education Department (ED) from gathering student-level data to evaluate postsecondary outcomes, such as transfer, employment and earnings.

“Collecting data at a student level reduces the institutional reporting burden while producing better, more complete information to help students, institutions, and policymakers make informed decisions,” according to a summary of the bill.

Looking ahead

Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) would like a House floor vote on the bill by the end of the year, according to committee aides.

The legislation hasn’t yet been scored but Democrats estimate that it would cost $400 billion over the next 10 years.

Scott said at a press conference on Tuesday that he is optimistic Democrats will get on board with the proposal. He noted that the legislation is more modest than some of the proposals offered by Democratic presidential candidates.

“There are authorizations in the bill that we can expand if we had more money,” Scott said. “It’s just a question of what we can afford. We believe this modest approach can actually pass and become law.”

Watch the Democratic press conference on the College Affordability Act.

Although the Democratic-controlled House may pass the legislation, it would be an uphill battle to reach a compromise with the Republican-led Senate. Last month, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, introduced piecemeal legislation to rework the Higher Education Act. The House and Senate bills do share some common elements, such as simplifying the federal student aid application, extending Pell Grant eligibility to certain short-term training programs, and allowing qualifying prisoners to use Pell.

Other areas

The House bill also would:

  • Create an emergency grant programs to help students with unexpected small costs, such as housing expenses and car repair.
  • Improve the transferability of short-term credentials and college credits.
  • Close loopholes to the 90-10 rule.
  • Require ED to establish a gainful-employment measure.
  • Address issues pertaining to homeless students and foster care youths.
  • Change funding formulas for the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work-Study programs.
  • Allow certain undocumented individuals, particularly DACA-eligible students, access to federal student aid.
  • Simplify the federal student loan repayment process and make it less expensive for students to borrow.

The legislation also proposes reforms to accreditation and campus safety.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.