Washington Watch: Foxx stakes out higher ed positions

Rep. Virginia Foxx, the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, outlined her thoughts on higher education at an American Enterprise Institute event on Tuesday. (Screenshot from streamed event)

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) on Tuesday voiced blistering criticism of President Joe Biden’s loan cancellation policies and outlined her own vision for higher education policy, as reflected in part in the REAL Reform Act introduced last month. 

In a speech Tuesday held at the American Enterprise Institute, Foxx said that when the event was scheduled, “Many of us had hoped that the president would not listen to the radical wing of the Democratic party,” commenting that this “shameful, sad and blatantly political move is politics at its worst.” 

She called the cancellation action “illegal,” though she later hedged about the prospects of successful court action, stating that she did not know whether “the rule of law prevails, and he is stopped.” She noted that the Biden plan is “spending over $1 trillion for free college for a select few,” claiming that the plan would cost each American $3,000, and that it was “dishonorable debt transfer,” and a “slap in the face to every hardworking American taxpayer.”

Foxx, who is the ranking minority member of the House Education and Labor Committee, is expected to chair the committee if Republicans control the House next year, so her voice has authority. Foxx noted that the Republican’s REAL Reform Act would only be part of a comprehensive Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization effort.

Foxx’s comments touched on the key issue of accountability in several contexts. She said that, after the president’s high-profile loan cancellation plan, “everyone will be asking the same question — where do we go from here?” She stated that America has a “broken higher education system” and that the “symptom as well as the underlying disease” need to be addressed. But Foxx did add that “there are plenty of institutions that are doing the right thing by serving their students well,” and that “we must work in partnership with colleges and universities in this (reform) effort.”

Risk-sharing of student loans

Foxx stressed the need for accountability in higher education but didn’t go into detail. She raised the specter of “risk-sharing,” noting that colleges should share some of the risks of student loans and that the current student aid financing system contains “perverse incentives.”

Community colleges historically have strongly opposed risk-sharing because it tends to penalize institutions that serve the least-prepared students and have the fewest resources, and because colleges neither determine who receives loans nor how they are collected.

However, the REAL Reform legislation would give institutions greater control of student borrowing, and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) supports this additional discretion if appropriately structured. AACC also opposed the risk-sharing that was included in Foxx’s PROSPER Act of 2017, which focused on imposing financial costs on colleges when students did not complete a “period of enrollment” as defined under HEA’s Title IV.

Looking at debt, earnings data 

Foxx also delved into broader issues of accountability and transparency. She stated that she supports the availability of information on debt and earnings by program for all programs, a position AACC backs.  However, the absence of a comprehensive national data system, such as the one that would be created by the College Transparency Act — which the association supports but Foxx staunchly opposes — makes generating these data impossible in many circumstances. The executive branch makes some earnings information available through its College Scorecard, but because that data are limited to Title IV recipients only, its utility is severely circumscribed.

Foxx also called attention to the complex calculations made by private institutions to modify their tuitions to get students to enroll.

In addition, addressed the proposed Workforce Pell Grant that is included in the REAL Reform Act, stating that there are different paths to economic success “and the American Dream.” She noted that the programs would have to demonstrate success but added that the same should be expected from all programs.

Foxx emphasized the benefits of helping more individuals participate in higher education by providing this additional Pell option. AACC strongly supports new Pell eligibility in this area and is focused on generating the policy and political consensus to get a provision enacted. 

Doubling Pell and college prices

In response to a question about doubling the maximum Pell Grant, Foxx said that “we know that the more money that goes into assisting students, the higher costs go to higher education,” and that doubling Pell would only “allow colleges and universities to increase the cost.” For community colleges, this is clearly not the case — community college tuitions have been and remain significantly below the Pell Grant maximum, and over time tuitions have displayed no relationship to increases in the Pell Grant. 

Foxx also talked about the movement towards credentialing and away from degrees, referring to a cultural change in this area. She said that “degrees are not the answer to happiness,” and that she wanted potential students to have “informed consent.” She added that she did not believe that “degrees are just about money.”

“We must change our mentality and recognize there are many paths to the American Dream,” she said.

HEA on the horizon?

In commenting on the possibility of enacting an HEA reauthorization bill, which is eight years overdue, Foxx said, “I like to think of myself as the little engine that could…I think in this business you have to be positive.” If you’re not, she added, “people would just give up…timing is everything with legislation and I think the timing is right.”

“I think we’ve got a great opportunity,” Fox continued, adding that she is committed to working in a bipartisan fashion, while she hopes for Republican majorities in Congress. In any case, Foxx clearly views herself as being a central, focused force in higher education policymaking in the coming months.

About the Author

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