NAICU Washington Update

Congress Continues Push Toward Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

May 28, 2019

Both chambers of Congress recently held hearings on higher education topics, as legislators continue to lay the groundwork for Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization.  Three hearings were held in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate.

House Committee on Education and Labor

In the House of Representatives, the Committee on Education and Labor has now completed the third and fourth installments in their previously announced five-part series of bipartisan hearings on the HEA. The third hearing in the series, “The Cost of Non-Completion: Improving Student Outcomes in Higher Education,” focused on the importance of improving college completion. Despite bipartisan agreement about the need to improve educational outcomes, however, the hearing revealed disparities in how the two parties approach the perceived problem. In general, Democrats support increased financial investment and wrap-around services to assist low-income and minority students in improving outcomes, while Republicans question the cost of a degree and the institution’s role in student success.

The fourth bipartisan HEA hearing in the House, “Engines of Economic Mobility: The Critical Role of Community Colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions in Preparing Students for Success,” featured four leaders from such institutions. These witnesses emphasized their successes with low-income students, despite the insufficient levels of federal funding they receive.  Although a variety of institutions were represented on the panel, most of the conversation centered on community colleges’ efforts to provide workforce development and short-term training for high-demand jobs. According to one participant, “community colleges are the emergency rooms of higher education.” This comment, in particular, seemed to resonate with the panel, suggesting that community colleges are likely to receive significant support during HEA reauthorization.

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Meanwhile, in contrast to the bipartisan nature of the Education and Labor Committee hearings, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a more contentious hearing titled “Examining For-Profit College Oversight and Student Debt.” Although both sides of the aisle agreed that bad actors should be held accountable, their preferred legislative approaches appear to differ significantly. In general, Democrats called for increased regulation of the for-profit sector and accused the Trump Administration of failing to protect students from predatory institutions, while Republicans argued that the federal government should not favor one sector over another or limit student choice.

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Finally, the Senate held an additional HEA-related hearing titled “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Strengthening Accountability to Protect Students and Taxpayers,” which followed an earlier hearing on campus sexual assault. Taken together, the two hearings may signal areas of disagreement among the committee as they work to put together an HEA bill. Both Democrats and Republicans have agreed that HEA reauthorization will address campus sexual assault and institutional accountability, but appear to have different views on what those provisions should look like. In the area of accountability, Chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has stated he wants Gainful Employment rules to apply to all majors at all colleges, while Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) continues to believe that for-profit colleges should be under more scrutiny than other sectors.

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