NAICU Washington Update

Action on HEA Reauthorization Happening in both the House and Senate

February 23, 2018

Since the House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved its bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) in December, the House and Senate have continued to make substantial progress on rewriting the legislation.

Activities in the House

Most recently, the Education and the Workforce committee submitted to the full House its report.  The report provided detailed background and intent for the programmatic changes sought by the committee members, and outlined in the bill, H. R. 4508, the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act. Included in the bill is the official Congressional Budget Office cost estimate, detailing the scores of provisions, and whether they cost or save the government money. Both of these actions indicate the bill is ready to move to floor consideration for the full House of Representatives.

While leadership has not yet given Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) the green light for floor time, the Republican membership in the House is being actively consulted on the bill’s provisions as a first step in ensuring the votes needed for passage are secured.

Activities in the Senate
In the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) have held a series of four committee hearings to address several HEA themes and ideas, identify a procedural framework for moving forward with a bipartisan bill, and request feedback from higher education community stakeholders. They are hoping to produce a bipartisan bill for release this spring.

The first hearing focused on financial aid simplification and transparency, a favorite reauthorization theme of Sen. Alexander.  At the hearing, the committee discussed a variety of proposals, including one grant-one loan, streamlining the financial aid application process, and simplifying the student loan repayment process.  Many of the witnesses cautioned against eliminating programs and funding under the guise of “simplification,” and most agreed there is a repayment crisis in the country, sometimes related to over-borrowing.  However, they debunked the myth that all students have $100,000 in debt. Thus, proposals for student loan counseling before taking out loans, as well as assistance when entering repayment, were discussed.

The second hearing focused on access and innovation, and highlighted new ways of delivering higher education.  This included hearing about proposals for competency-based education, which Sen. Alexander suggested might warrant a pilot program.   

The third hearing addressed accountability to taxpayers, and covered a variety of issues in higher education related to the amount of money the federal government is investing in the student aid programs, especially student loans. Both Sens. Alexander and Murry noted their concern for students borrowing more than they can afford to repay, but had different approaches to addressing the issue. 

Sen. Alexander is considering changing the current institutional cohort default rate to a program-by-program cohort repayment rate, while Sen. Murray insisted there cannot be a one-size-fits-all accountability system for higher education because of the diversity of institutions. 

Witnesses discussed targeting the bad actors in the for-profit system for more scrutiny, using student level data for all students to link to post-college employment data, and ensuring colleges serving the most at-risk students are not unduly penalized.  Questions from committee members focused on institutional risk-sharing, income share agreements between institutions and borrowers, data and privacy, and program level accountability. At this hearing, Sen. Alexander released a white paper on accountability and requested feedback from stakeholders in the community on existing accountability requirements and proposed measures in the paper.  NAICU was one of the stakeholders that responded to the white paper.  

At the final hearing, the committee discussed improving college affordability. Sen. Alexander opened his remarks by noting that contrary to popular belief, college is not as hard to pay for as people think, due to the availability of federal, state, and institutional aid to help students afford college.  He also noted that tuition is not as high as the outliers make it seem.  But he also brought up his concern that increased spending on federal student aid results in increased tuition. This topic has been debated for 30 years, with three bipartisan administrations issuing reports disputing this theory.

Sen. Alexander again talked about some of his core ideas, including reducing the number of questions on the FAFSA from 25 to 15, encouraging students to apply earlier, and possibly on a smart phone app, consolidating SEOG into Pell, and putting savings from student loan changes into Pell to provide more grant aid, and encouraging students to complete college faster.

Sen. Murray’s comments outlined the Democratic principles for HEA, which include access for underrepresented students, college accountability for outcomes and completion, and safe learning environments.  After noting that student debt has tripled in 10 years, and that some students are hungry and homeless while in college, she voiced concerns about whether colleges, states, and the federal government are doing enough to help students.  Specifically, she noted that colleges are getting more expensive and are not acknowledging the increased toll of student debt, states continue to reduce funds for public colleges, and federal aid does not go as far as it did decades ago.  She ended her comments by noting that it’s not just tuition and fees that students need help with.  Among other things, she said students need assistance with financial aid awareness before, during, and after college, food and housing during school, and fair student loan repayment plans after college. 

Following this hearing, the committee asked students, parents, and other interested parties to give feedback, submit priorities and share stories for the HEA reauthorization. NAICU’s submission can be found here.

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