Washington Watch: House HEA bill heads to mark up next week

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Leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee plan to mark up their just-introduced bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) next week.

The College Affordability Act (H.R. 3674) will likely pass along a party-line vote, as was the case with Republican legislation to reauthorize HEA that the committee considered in 2017. The full House never voted on that legislation.

At the pending markup, Republicans are expected to offer a slew of amendments to the bill, just as Democrats did when they were in the minority. Before the markup, The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) will formally communicate its views on the bill to the committee. (AACC will host a webinar on the bill later this month.)

The reauthorization legislation may be brought to the House floor before year’s end, though that is not a sure thing given the legislation’s complexity and the fact that debate about federal funding and other issues may vie for the House’s attention.

The Congressional Budget Office hasn’t yet officially estimated the cost of the legislation, which House rules require before the bill can go to the full House. Republicans will undoubtedly criticize the bill’s price tag.

A closer look

The College Affordability Act has many positive aspects that dovetail with AACC’s agenda, but it also has aspects that the association would like to see changed. The association has developed a brief analysis of the major items of interest in the 1,165-page bill. A partial list of the more prominent items in the legislation follows. The legislation will change somewhat before the committee acts on it.

Pell grants

  • The legislation would immediately increase the Pell Grant maximum amount by $500, with guaranteed subsequent annual increases linked to the Consumer Price Index. AACC’s overriding priority is to ensure that financially disadvantaged students receive robust support from Pell, and these changes take a large step in that direction.
  • The legislation would establish new Pell Grant eligibility for short-term credit and non-credit training programs, between 150 and 600 hours in length. The provisions are modeled after the JOBS Act. However, taken altogether, the legislation’s specifics may make it difficult for otherwise relevant community college programs to qualify. AACC will seek changes in this area.
  • Incarcerated students would have access to the Pell Grant program, in a generally very positive way.
  • Post-baccalaureate students, including graduate and professional students, also would be eligible for Pell grants. Extending eligibility so broadly would have important policy implications, particularly concerning its cost, the concerns AACC.

Loans

  • A variety of changes to the federal loan programs would make them more attractive to students and easier to repay. The changes should help reduce community college student defaults.
  • The bill would create a new “adjusted cohort default rate” to take into account the percentage of a college’s students who borrow — a change AACC has long supported. The legislation also would establish a new loan repayment rate calculation.

New programs

  • The legislation would authorize and provide mandatory funding for America’s College Promise, which would include a required state contribution, to ensure three years tuition-free for community college students who enroll at least half-time. AACC continues to strongly support this legislation.
  • It also would create new grant programs to support community college student success, developmental education reform and dual enrollment.

Data/accountability

  • A new federal unit record data system would provide comprehensive information on postsecondary student progression, with a link to workforce data. AACC strongly supports this system because it would yield much more accurate information about community college performance. The legislation does not formally include a 300 percent of “normal time” completion rate, for which the association has advocated. But AACC will continue with its efforts.

Accreditation

  • The legislation would place a greater, and positive, emphasis on student achievement – completion/transfer, workforce outcomes and progression. However, it also would give the U.S. education secretary the authority to set “bright lines” for student achievement, a dramatic change that AACC and likely other higher education associations find problematic.

On the Senate side

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently introduced the Student Aid Improvement Act (S. 2257). It addresses several high-profile items in HEA, some of which AACC strongly supports. However, the legislation is not a comprehensive HEA reauthorization bill – though it derives from a series of bipartisan pieces of legislation – and, critically, it is not backed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), the ranking member of the committee.

About the Author

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