NAICU Washington Update

Higher Education Reauthorization is Getting Serious

March 07, 2019

The Higher Education Act is overdue for reauthorization, and despite a bill that passed the House Education and the Workforce Committee in the last Congress, real traction was never gained.  Now Congress is at it again.  This time, in both the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are pledging bi-partisan cooperation.  

In the House, the new Democratic Chair of the Education and Labor Committee, Bobby Scott (VA), has met with the Ranking Republican, Virginia Foxx (NC) and come to agreement on a series of five hearings they plan to jointly conduct.  The hearings will be:

  1. The Cost of College: Student Centered Reforms to Bring Higher Education Within Reach
  2. Strengthening Accountability in Higher Education to Better Serve Students and Taxpayers
  3. The Cost of Non-Completion: Improving Student Outcomes in Higher Education
  4. Engines of Economic Mobility: The Critical Role of Community Colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions in Preparing Students for Success
  5. Innovation to Improve Equity: Exploring High-Quality Pathways to a College Degree

While the joint announcement that the House is again embarking on hearings might be read as a slowing of the process, it is worth noting that both Reps. Scott and Foxx have their own fully drafted, comprehensive bills that are ready to be negotiated.  This could expedite the process if they decide they truly want to collaborate. Alternatively, Rep. Scott could simply go it alone in the House with his Aim Higher Act from the last Congress.

In the Senate, the chair of the HELP Committee, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), delivered a major education policy speech at the American Enterprise Institute outlining his three priorities for reauthorization: FAFSA Simplification; repayment simplification; and “gainful employment for all” (or eligibility by major for Title IV.

Shortly thereafter, Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) laid out her four priorities at a speech at the Center for American Progress: improving college affordability through a federal-state partnership; holding students accountable for student success (outcomes); expanding access to higher education; and increasing campus safety and protecting students’ civil rights.  

Unlike in the House, the Senate will need bi-partisan cooperation for a bill to pass, so it is particularly interesting that key staff for both leaders have indicated that detailed negotiations are happening, as they work through the entire HEA.

The broader political environment will also play a role in the outcome for HEA.  It is common political wisdom that the closer Congress gets to a presidential election, the less that gets done legislatively. However, Sen. Alexander has announced his retirement and his desire to finish HEA before his term is over, and Sen. Murray has a long track record of working with him on important education legislation. 

In the meantime, with accreditation, student employment outcomes, the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, student loan limits and interest subsidies, campus safety, free speech, free public college, teacher preparation, governance rules for nonprofit colleges, and institutional risk sharing among the issues on the table, private, nonprofit colleges have a tremendous stake in these proceedings.

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