The chairmen of the House and Senate education committees have both outlined their plans to reauthorize the nation’s main higher education law. The question now is whether they can find common ground to renew the Higher Education Act this year.
Both Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) on Thursday outlined their plans at a forum hosted by Inside Higher Ed in Washington, D.C. Alexander highlighted the three pillars of his plan – simplifying the federal student aid application, streamlining student loan repayment options and expanding the so-called “gainful employment” rules to all colleges and universities – which he announced on Monday. Scott, meanwhile, focused on elements of an HEA reform bill that Democrats released in 2017 called the Aim Higher Act.
Scott, who is the new chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he wants Congress to pass a comprehensive HEA bill, rather than a narrow compromise measure that just “changes things on the margins.” The Aim Higher Act would make those sweeping changes, he said, cited that the bill would, in part, provide additional resources for student support services at community colleges, particularly those with high percentages of low-income and minority students.
“Increased enrollment is good, but increasing completion is a true measure of success,” Scott said.
Student aid is critical, but the cost of tuition is not the only barrier to higher education for many students, he said. As a result, he supports additional assistance, such as campus-based childcare and transitional help for veterans.
And while he agrees that simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is important, Scott said students shouldn’t have to fill out the FAFSA every year. Instead, students should be able to use data already gathered by the IRS to certify their income information, he said.
More oversight, improved accreditation
Scott said the Democrats’ bill would offer incentives to states to provide free community college tuition to all students and to incentivize states to increase their contributions to higher education.
Noting that community colleges and historically black colleges and universities serve a unique role in providing higher education, as they disproportionately serve lower-income and first-generation college students, Scott said “HEA must invest in these institutions.” He also called for increasing state and federal oversight and improving accreditation standards.
Accreditors should look at the institutions, such as for-profits, that charge “breathtaking tuition for marginal programs,” Scott said. “A community college would do a better job at a fraction of the cost.”
Another of his priorities is improving campus safety by strengthening rules on sexual assault, hazing and hate crimes.
Scott said he is encouraged by the optimism in Congress for passing an HEA bill, but conceded there are major differences between House and Senate plans that make passage difficult. Anything that passes must be comprehensive, he said.
“Tinkering around the edges would be a disservice to institutions and the students they serve,” he added.
Getting Congress to pass a comprehensive HEA bill will be difficult, agreed Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, at a panel convened to respond to Scott’s and Alexander’s remarks. Provisions sought by the Democrats for free college or debt-free college would be particularly difficult to pass, she said.
Alexander has a clearer idea of where he wants to go, while Scott is still working through how to proceed, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. Hartle called Alexander’s proposal to allow a payroll deduction for repaying student loans especially helpful in minimizing the repayment burden.
Simplifying FAFSA is easy; reaching a compromise on other issues will be much more difficult, said Jee Hang Lee, vice president for public policy and external relations at the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). Alexander’s proposal for risk-sharing will cause some consternation for community colleges, he added.
“Having the same risk-sharing scheme for all types of institutions is a problem,” he said.
Despite the optimism of Alexander and Scott, overarching issues, such as Title IX and what to do about for-profit institutions “will suck up the oxygen in the room,” said panel moderator Doug Lederman, editor of Inside Higher Ed. It’s going to be “an incredibly big lift” to get comprehensive reform.
The idea of streamlining student loan repayment plans would likely have support in Congress but would be expensive, Hartle said. If the burden is eased for students, the bill would have to reduce costs elsewhere, and there aren’t many places to do that, he said.
The election factor
While Democrats are interested in reducing student debt, the question is whether lawmakers running for president would want to deal with it now or save it as an issue for the election, Hartle said.
He added that there are three overlapping obstacles to passing HEA this year: time, money and bipartisanship. The measure would have to be passed by July 4, before the presidential campaigns heat up, and there are several issues – such as Title IX, for-profits, accountability and loan forgiveness – that could derail the whole process. (Alexander, who plans to retire when his term ends, has said he wants to introduce a bill this spring, have it pass the Senate this summer and hopefully craft a compromise bill with House leaders by the end of the year.)
With so much diversity in higher education, the idea that an accountability system could work for all institutions is a challenge, Hartle said.
“Anything perceived as bad for community colleges or any sector would be controversial,” he said.
When asked how colleges can get their message across to Congress, Lee said what helps ACCT and the American Association of Community Colleges with their advocacy is when students talk about their family situations and pathways to higher education. That’s when it becomes real to members of Congress, he said.