NAICU Washington Update

Acting Secretary of Education Testifies in House and Senate

February 29, 2016

Acting Secretary of Education John King testified before congressional education committees in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives the week of February 22. Prior to being named Acting Secretary, King served at the Department as Principal Senior Advisor. In that role, he carried out the duties of the Deputy Secretary, overseeing all preschool-through-12th-grade education policies, programs and strategic initiatives, as well as the operations of the Department.

U.S. Senate

On February 25, King testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee as a formal step in the process of his nomination to the permanent role of Secretary of Education. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) chaired the hearing, with most of the committee members participating. It is evident that many senators on the HELP Committee will support King’s nomination when it is brought before the committee in March. As a result, the senators used the hearing as an opportunity to highlight their individual policy interests, rather than subjecting King to a more in-depth examination of the administration’s work.

In his opening and closing statements, Chairman Alexander emphasized his desire to work with King over the next year on college affordability, financial aid simplification, and eliminating regulatory red tape in higher education; but was more emphatic about King following the prohibitions in ESSA to the letter of the law. Other higher education topics covered during the hearing included student loan borrower defenses, Title IX enforcement, cybersecurity, data and student privacy, student debt and fraud in the for-profit sector, and regulatory compliance.

The committee plans to vote on the nomination March 9, with the full Senate vote expected the following week.

U.S. House of Representatives

In contrast to the light touch taken in the Senate, the hearing before the House Education and Workforce Committee the day before was a lively discussion of the Obama Administration’s FY2017 budget request. The hearing covered a number of issues related to higher education, including deregulation, year-round Pell, dual enrollment programs, the College Scorecard, the proposed overtime rules, student loan interest rates, and other hot topics.

Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) centered on the role of sub-regulatory guidance in helping to define administration policy, particularly within the Office of Civil Rights. Congresswoman Foxx noted that the Department of Education has increasingly relied on guidance as a means to accomplish policy goals that are best negotiated through the comment and review process. In response, King acknowledged that guidance is not binding, but is instead used to clarify departmental interpretation of statute. The Department is working to provide further clarification on the interpretation of guidance at the institutional level.

Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN) focused on the need to reduce the regulatory burden that is placed on colleges and universities. Frequently citing the ACE Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education report, and a recent study conducted by Vanderbilt University, Roe stressed the financial burden that overregulation has caused at American colleges. King noted that the Department plans to implement some of the suggestions from the task force, as well as work with Congress to identify further ways to reduce the burden in order to best serve students.

Rep. Mike Bishop (R-MI) delved into the overtime rule that is currently being negotiated within the Department of Labor. Bishop described many of the concerns facing colleges and universities around the country, should the overtime rule go into effect. Rep. Bishop challenged King to keep these issues in mind and to engage with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to ensure that these concerns are addressed as the process moves forward.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) devoted his line of questioning to the College Scorecard. Rep. Walberg is concerned with the top-down approach of the Scorecard, including his opinion that the Scorecard will act as a de facto ratings system based on the published information. Walberg also noted that some of the information on the Scorecard could be unintentionally misleading to students, particularly concerning salary data. He pushed King to ensure that the information appearing on the Scorecard is as accurate and up-to-date as possible.

Several members discussed their support for moving to year-round Pell, including Representatives Katherine Clark (D-MA), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Elise Stefanik (R-NY). Similar overtures were made concerning dual enrollment programs as a means to increase completion rates at a lower cost to students. Other members discussed an interest to move to lower federal student loan interest rates, as well as a desire to bring graduate student loan interest rates in line with undergraduate rates.

Overall, the House hearing was one of the most policy focused and productive exchanges in recent memory.

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