NAICU Washington Update

Higher Education Act Reauthorization Moves to the Next Phase

June 27, 2014

With the hearing phase all but concluded, both the House and Senate Education Committees have started to unveil preliminary ideas for how the Higher Education Act might be rewritten. Three major proposals, from key players in the process, emerged within less than a week of each other giving great insight into how the next phase of the lengthy legislative process might shape up.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) released a statement, 11-page outline, and the first three in a series of bills that outline the Committee’s goals, the next steps in the process, and some specific ideas future legislation is likely to include. The bills include:

On the Senate side, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a 785-page bill, while Committee Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN), along with Michael Bennet (D-CO), released legislative language simplifying the student aid programs and application processes.

Collectively the proposals show three diverse sets of ideas for HEA, making it increasingly likely that the reauthorization process will spill over into the next Congress. The first proposal to be made public, by Senators Alexander and Bennet would eliminate the SEOG, LEAP and Perkins Loan programs, and reduce the Free Application to Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to two questions. This “One Grant -One Loan” proposal has been around in various forms since the 1990s, but has been heavily pushed in this reauthorization cycle by advocacy groups that do not directly represent higher education stakeholders. The likelihood of passage is unclear, but some college groups are not opposed to the idea.

A radically simplified federal application process has also been brewing for several years, although an overly simplified form could actually cost low-income students access to important student aid funds. If states and institutions find the FAFSA so simple as to be unreliable, a proliferation of confusing and expensive private, fee-based forms could develop as was the case before the FAFSA was created by Congress in 1992.

The Republican outline from the House Education Committee follows some of the Alexander themes including the idea of One Grant and One Loan, but is less radical in its simplification approach. Most interesting in the House draft is the legislative process they propose to follow: unveil smaller bills over time. This approach anticipates making bill details available by topic, but would likely indicate a longer process towards a comprehensive reauthorization that would extend beyond this Congress. Among the good news in the House summary is a reaffirmation of the independence of accreditation and states, and a condemnation of the Obama Administration’s plan to rate colleges instead of providing a more consumer focused system to help students find the best fit college.

Senator Harkin’s statement, two-page outline and accompanying bill language are the most detailed of the proposals unveiled this week. While on one hand he continues his lifelong support for the core student aid programs, including campus-based aid and LEAP, he also proposes a new funding stream for public colleges to help them reduce tuition for in-state students. This effort to direct federal institutional support to one sector of higher education is an unexpected departure from the historical federal role in higher education of providing aid to low-income students to use at the college of their choice. Sen. Harkin also would strengthen oversight of for-profit colleges and loan servicers, and calls for improved consumer information.

As the reauthorization process moves forward, NAICU will be asking for the active engagement of all members, first from those who have elected officials on the Congressional education committees, and later from all members as the bills move to the House and Senate floors.

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