Washington Watch: Movement on HEA

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, pauses for a reporter's question at the Capitol in Washington. (Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) last week introduced legislation that would include many important changes to the Higher Education Act (HEA), but it is not the comprehensive reauthorization bill that has been under consideration by Congress for years.

The relatively limited scope of the Student Aid Improvement Act (S. 2557) stems from the inconclusive negotiations between the majority and minority members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on a comprehensive bill. In the light of this, Alexander, who chairs the committee, is proposing more modest HEA legislation, partly by stitching together a series of already-introduced, bi-partisan bills.

However, Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), the ranking member on the HELP committee, have indicated that they will not support the bill, fairly dooming its Senate prospects.

The legislation has drawn some criticism because Alexander has opted not to separately advance the FUTURE Act, which provides now expired “mandatory” (i.e., guaranteed by law and not subject to the annual appropriations process) funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

The House has passed the FUTURE Act, which the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) supports. However, instead of moving the FUTURE Act separately to ensure funding continuity, Alexander instead wants to combine the FUTRE Act with other items.

Simplifying the aid application process

Alexander’s bill includes several provisions that AACC generally supports. Given his commitment to simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, it’s not surprising that these provisions account for an overwhelming portion of the bill. It would substantially reduce the 100-plus questions in the FAFSA and also change the complicated needs-analysis calculation. This includes linking federal Title IV eligibility to other federal means-tested programs.

The bill also would allow data-sharing between the U.S. Education Department and the Internal Revenue Service to make it easier for families to complete the FAFSA. In addition, the legislation would establish activities to make middle and secondary students aware of Pell grants and their eligibility requirement sooner, as well as a public awareness campaign to encourage more students to complete the FAFSA.

With community colleges having the lowest FAFSA completion rates of any sector, these changes are welcome.

The Senate bill also includes the Understanding the True Cost of College Act, which is bipartisan, bicameral legislation. It would require some standardization and hopefully improvement of financial aid offers. Greater clarity in award letters is needed.

Short-term training Pell Grant

The Senate legislation would extend Pell Grant eligibility to certain short-term training programs, a top AACC priority. The provisions correspond with those in the JOBS Act, which AACC supports.

However, the bill would limit eligibility to programs that have kept tuition increases below inflation for the previous three years, and the programs cannot raise it for the period during which they receive support. This policy would render numerous community college programs ineligible, in a way that seems both illogical and unfair, particularly given the low cost of many community college programs.

The legislation also would allow eligible incarcerated students to once again receive Pell grants with relatively few restrictions, which AACC sees as a positive. Individuals serving lifelong sentences would remain ineligible for the grants.

The Senate bill does not address HEA’s ban on a federal student unit record data system (URDS) or include the URDS in the College Transparency Act (CTA) that AACC supports. However, Alexander backs CTA, and it may be added later to the legislation.

House activity

Meantime, Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee are putting finishing touches on their long-anticipated HEA reauthorization legislation. It will be largely modeled on last Congress’s ambitious — and costly — Aim Higher Act (H.R. 6543), but with some significant changes.

The bill will likely be introduced in mid-October, with a committee markup anticipated shortly after that. The markup will likely fall on partisan lines.

About the Author

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