Democrats and Republicans on the House education committee seem to agree that not all U.S. jobs require a college degree, and that more can be done to help students access postsecondary programs that lead to those jobs.
Where they disagree is whether Democratic legislation to reauthorize the nation’s main higher education law would do that.
As the House Education and Labor Committee on Tuesday began to mark up the College Affordability Act (H.R. 4674), members took their partisan sides on the legislation. (Editor’s note: The committee was still marking up the bill at our press time.)
Democrats lauded the comprehensive legislation, noting that the Higher Education Act (HEA) hasn’t been updated in more than a decade. They cited a few of the bill’s major proposals: to offer three years of tuition-free community college and increase the Pell Grant maximum, as well as extend Pell eligibility to quality short-term programs.
“Right now, if you want to get a degree in philosophy, you can access federal Pell grants,” said Rep. Josh Harder (D-California). “But if you want to get a certificate to be a maintenance mechanic — which we’re low on — you’re on your own.”
CAA would change that, he said.
What opponents said
Committee Republicans pushed back on the bill, saying it doesn’t focus on offering alternative pathways to work, nor does it hold colleges and universities accountable. It’s also expensive, costing at least $400 billion.
Ranking member Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) said the measure “doubles down on failed policies.” She noted that the bill would permit undocumented college students to access federal student aid. “These are funds that should be directed toward lower-income students,” she said.
Republicans also argued that CAA includes too many regulations for colleges to access certain federal funds, such as the proposed short-term Pell grants.
“Every dollar spent on complying with the federal government is a dollar not spent on keeping costs low for consumers,” Foxx said.
Republicans took aim at the bill’s proposal to offer free community college. They argued that it limited students’ college choices by focusing on one sector of higher education. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pennsylvania) added that the proposal could result in driving up tuition at four-year institutions.
The committee also discussed apprenticeships as amendments were proposed. For example, Republicans presented an amendment to evaluate how well apprenticeships – particularly industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs) – move students into jobs. Democrats opposed it, arguing that it would expand so-called IRAPs, which they contend are unproven in terms of providing quality training.
Some of the amendments
Amendments adopted by the committee prior to our press time would:
- address student hunger
- expand funding and access to childcare for student parents
The following amendments were not yet voted on, but are likely to pass as they were introduced by Democrats. They would:
- increase the Pell maximum amount by $625 to $6,820 for fiscal 2021 –
$125 more than the $500 increase proposed in the original CAA legislation. (It is part of a base substitute amendment proposed by Democrats.)
- encourage closer collaboration between community colleges and the business sector
- task a commission to study the effects of student debt and potential debt cancellation on students as well as regional and national economies
- require colleges to feature their net-price calculator more prominently on their websites, and require the U.S. Education Department to improve its universal price calculator
- strengthen the so-called 90/10 rule to prevent for-profit colleges from abusing federal student aid programs
Republican-submitted amendments that are part of the upcoming roll-call vote (and not expected to pass) would:
- substitute CAA with an updated version of legislation to reauthorize HEA that previously passed when Republicans controlled the committee
- attach a means test to determine free- or reduced-tuition for college students
- address financial aid offer requirements
- exclude lobbyists from public service loan forgiveness
- keep the current funding level for research on GEAR UP programs
- ensure regulatory burdens of the bill will not increase college costs
AACC/ACCT take on the bill
The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) on Monday sent to committee leaders a letter outlining what they liked in the bill as well as the provisions that concerned them. For example, they support the proposal to cover community college tuition as part of a partnership with states. They also support increasing the Pell maximum grant and indexing future increases to inflation. And they back increasing the grant’s lifetime eligibility limit from 12 to 14 full-time semesters.
And while AACC and ACCT appreciate the bill’s proposal to extend Pell eligibility to certain short-term programs — a priority for the groups — they are “deeply concerned” that the provisions could prevent many high-quality programs from qualifying.
“We believe that these ‘guard rails’ are particularly unnecessary given that proprietary institutions are excluded from this new eligibility,” the letter said.
The associations also don’t support the bill’s proposal for a completion rate or earnings threshold for Pell eligibility.
“Such thresholds would be unique to this small subset of HEA programs and render many high-quality programs ineligible,” they said.
The letter also addresses the bill’s proposals on accreditation, gainful employment metrics, completion measurements and more.