NAICU Washington Update

Senate Kicks Off Formal Reauthorization Process

September 20, 2013

Momentum is building towards the on-time renewal of the Higher Education Act, with the formal announcement of the hearing topics and procedures planned by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). The bi-partisan leadership of the committee, Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released a letter describing the general topics to be covered and the process that interested parties should use in making recommendations regarding those topics.

Earlier this year, the bipartisan leadership of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce made a similar call for recommendations. [See July 24, 2013, Washington Update] However, the Senate request differs in terms of the sequencing and specificity of the input being sought.

Rather than setting a single deadline for receipt of all recommendations, the HELP Committee is asking that interested parties submit at any one time only those recommendations related to an announced hearing topic. For example, if the committee announces plans to hold a hearing on accreditation, then it wants to receive recommendations only about accreditation in advance of that hearing. The committee plans to hold about a dozen reauthorization hearings, so most stakeholders will be providing multiple sets of recommendations over the course of the next several months. The committee will announce each hearing topic about a week in advance.

The general topic areas identified by the Committee are similar to those listed in the House request. However, unlike the House, the Senate has set guidelines for the length and general contents of the submissions. They are to be no more than 5 pages long and are expected to include background information, appropriate statutory or regulatory references, detailed recommendations, and rationale for the recommendations. Recommendations are to be submitted to

Following closely on the heels the of the committee’s announcement of its general reauthorization plans, the first hearing was held on September 19. It focused on the respective roles of the higher education “triad” of accreditors, states, and the federal Department of Education.

Dr. Paul E. Lingenfelter, former President of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, provided a brief history of the triad and suggested ways in which the role of each entity might be strengthened. He cited the need to reduce the variability among states in terms of their oversight efforts, suggested that accreditors provide more information to the public, and indicated the Department of Education should place greater focus on student success as well as refine its own tools for auditing institutions.

Dr. Marshall A. Hill, Executive Director of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, addressed the state role. He listed a series of administrative, policy, and data activities performed by state agencies—particularly with respect to public institutions. He identified major challenges as being maintaining quality in the face of diminishing resources and supporting innovation without inviting abuse of programs.

Dr. Susan Phillips, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, University at Albany, spoke about the inevitable tensions among members of the triad—indicating that such tension was healthy. She suggested that the roles of each party be clarified and that communication and coordination among them be increased.

Dr. Terry W. Hartle, Senior Vice President, American Council on Education, focused on the role of the Department of Education in institutional eligibility and certification. He noted that the Department has substantial powers, but often fails to use them or applies them unevenly. He particularly noted the problems created by inconsistent application of the federal financial responsibility standards. He also cited the practice of the Department’s piling more responsibilities upon accreditors, while at the same time attempting to exert greater control over them, as being particularly problematic.

In questioning the panel, committee members were particularly focused on issues relating to cost and innovation. Most of the comments and questions did not relate directly to the responsibilities of triad members, though witnesses noted that reduced state support has been a factor in rising public college tuition. The loss of funding for the state-federal partnership LEAP program was also cited. These themes will undoubtedly be repeated as the committee continues its series of reauthorization hearings.

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