Washington Watch: PROSPER Act could soon head to House floor

For almost six months, speculation has run rampant about whether Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization legislation, known as the PROSPER Act (H.R. 4508, “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform”) would be taken to the House floor for a vote. 

The speculation continues, with House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (D-North Carolina) and other panel leaders working to corral sufficient votes to pass the measure. The education committee approved the PROSPER Act on a party-line vote, and there will likely be no Democratic votes for the measure if and when it hits the floor. Given this, the legislation will need all but about two dozen Republican votes to clear the House.

A variety of concerns from students, institutions and other stakeholders appear to have made some Republicans reluctant to vote for the measure. Reservations include the bill’s call to:

  • Eliminate the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program and the in-school loan interest subsidy for qualifying students
  • Increase the aggregate cost of repaying student loans
  • Eliminate public service loan forgiveness
  • Limit the authorization ceiling for the TRIO program to below the current funding level

Problem areas

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) does not support the PROSPER Act in its current form, which the association has expressed to the education committee, and through a subsequent coalition letter sent to the House leadership.

AACC’s primary concern about the bill is its “risk-sharing” provisions. These changes to the current “Return of Title IV” requirements will often result in a large financial charge on community colleges; this is justified on grounds that this new assessment will induce institutions to focus more aggressively on student success, and here AACC disagrees with the committee.

Thanks to engaged community college CEOs, it’s clear that many members of Congress are aware of the problems with this version of risk-sharing. But it’s unclear what, if anything, the committee’s leaders will do about it.

AACC is also very concerned about the potential elimination of Title III-A, a new program-specific loan repayment rate that would link to federal aid eligibility, and, of course, the student aid provisions mentioned above.

Good pieces

The PROSPER Act does have some major pluses for community colleges and their students. These include significant creation of new student aid eligibility for short-term workforce development programs, a position that AACC has long advocated; granting institutions greater discretion to reduce student borrowing for specified categories of students; and a new completion rate standard of “300% of the normal time” for community college students that tracks the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA). A new apprenticeship program holds promise, as does a $300 annual Pell Grant “bonus” for students who enroll in 15 credits during a term.

Senate bill unlikely

AACC will closely monitor developments in the House concerning possible floor action on the PROSPER Act, particularly concerning potential changes.

However, even if the legislation succeeds in the House, its ultimate fate is problematic, given that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is reportedly not making progress in fashioning bipartisan legislation, despite the fact that this a top priority of HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee). Such bipartisan support is necessary to get the legislation through the Senate.

Therefore, it appears fairly likely that the education committees will go back to the drawing board in 2019 to work on a HEA reauthorization bill. AACC believes that HEA can be improved and is eager to see a successful reauthorization effort.

About the Author

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