Published Online: August 19, 2014
Published in Print: August 20, 2014, as Congress Making Some Headway on Higher Education Act

Congress Making Headway on Higher Education Act

Rare opportunity seen for bipartisan action

With a lame-duck session looming—typically a time when Congress accomplishes very little—lawmakers in both the House and the Senate are priming higher education for the spotlight.

Both chambers have made headway in charting their respective paths to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the mammoth law that includes the entire federal student loan system, the Pell grant tuition assistance program for low- and middle-income students, teacher-preparation provisions, and various programs that help disadvantaged students access higher education.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, already ushered three small bipartisan bills through the House. Mr. Kline plans to continue his signature piecemeal approach to tackling large pieces of legislation, giving priority to proposals with the best chance of attracting support from both sides of the aisle.

The Senate, on the other hand, is taking a holistic approach. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, released a 785-page discussion draft of the reauthorization. He and committee staff members are collecting feedback and hope to unveil a final version this fall.

There are already significant policy chasms between the two chambers' proposals, and the different legislating approaches could cause problems down the road.

But Republicans and Democrats in both chambers agree that the now-expired HEA is in dire need of updating as student debt continues to balloon, and programs like the Pell Grant become more difficult to fund due to increased demand. The law was due for reauthorization at the end of 2013. With very few domestic-policy issues garnering any bipartisan support, higher education stands out as being one of the few areas that Congress could coalesce around.

Piece by Piece

In some ways the House is further along in the reauthorization process, but the three bills it's cleared are narrow and largely non-controversial.

Competing Strategies

The House and Senate are taking different tacks in their efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

House Republican Proposals

Pell Grant

  • Consolidate the Pell Grant and the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant into one Pell Grant program
  • Change Pell eligibility requirements, likely by limiting the grant to low-income students only
  • Pell to allow students to draw down the federal aid over a six-year period

TRIO

  • Better assess the effectiveness of TRIO programs aimed at low-income and first-generation students and students with disabilities
  • Provide incentives for investment in TRIO-like programs at the state, local, and institutional levels, rather than increasing funding from the federal side

Teacher-Preparation Programs

  • Streamline the 82 programs across 10 agencies that relate to teacher quality
  • Limit reporting requirements to output-focused data, such as whether a program improves teaching skills and student outcomes
  • Shift the Teacher Quality Partnership program into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Senate Democratic Proposals

Pell Grant

  • Allow full-time students to use Pell year-round

TRIO

  • Maintain the TRIO programs

Teacher-Preparation Programs

  • Offer states a new grant for ranking teacher colleges and leadership programs based in part on student test scores
  • Increase emphasis on clinical training in teacher-preparation programs
  • New grants for programs to boost on-the-job training in high-need schools, rural schools, or high-need subjects
  • Expand the Teacher Quality Partnership program to include school-leadership programs

The first would allow federal student aid to be used at colleges, universities, and other postsecondary education programs that operate on a competency-based system versus a traditional credit-hour system. The measure is aimed at getting students degrees faster and thus in a more cost-effective way.

The second bill would create an online dashboard for prospective students and their parents with information on tuition and other college costs. The dashboard format is designed to provide only the most important information, and make that information easier for families to understand.

Finally, the House backed a bill that would increase the amount of required financial counseling for students and their families accessing federal student loans. Financial counseling is now required upon entering and exiting college, but this measure would require annual counseling.

House Democrats supported the three bills, but spent much of their floor debate time railing against Mr. Kline's approach to reauthorization, slamming him for not addressing what they consider the most pressing issue: student loan debt. They also argued that while the three bills would have a positive effect, the overall impact would only scratch the surface of the bigger picture.

"Today's action is not enough for students already facing a mountain of college debt," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking member of the education committee, after the House voted in favor of the bills. "With few legislative days left in this Congress, it is unthinkable that we wouldn't take decisive action on behalf of millions of students and their parents to address college debt and college costs."

In June, Mr. Kline released an 11-page white paper outlining the chairman's vision for tackling the entire higher education law. The summary includes some heavy lifts, such as consolidating all existing undergraduate federal student loans into one loan and all existing federal grants into one grant, shifting teacher-preparation programs into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and putting the Pell Grant on stable financial footing. But there's very little detail about how Mr. Kline plans to tackle each proposal.

Mr. Kline said he'll put a priority on measures that earn the most bipartisan support, but the more difficult issues outlined in his road map aren't likely to appear prior to midterm elections. At this point, said a spokesman for the committee, there is no timeline for introducing additional bills.

Harkin's Policy Push

Mr. Harkin's discussion draft, meanwhile, is a sweeping plan that details hundreds of proposed changes to the higher education law and takes a much different ideological approach to key aspects of higher education policy.

While Rep. Kline's package of bills focuses more on eliminating federal regulations in order to save taxpayers and students money, Sen. Harkin's draft largely focuses on protections and savings for students. Mr. Harkin's vision is reflected in the discussion draft with provisions that would allow students to discharge private student loan debt in bankruptcy, eliminate origination fees on federal loans, and rein in practices of some for-profit colleges that saddle students with debt in exchange for what may be a worthless degree or certificate.

In fact, the only real similarity between the two emerging proposals is that they would increase the flexibility of the Pell Grant program, provide better information on costs to students and parents, and strengthen financial aid counseling.

Related Blog

Importantly, as the Education Department is set to release new regulations regarding teacher preparation, Mr. Harkin's proposal would authorize several programs to reform and improve teacher and school leader preparation, including a new grant for states to assess such programs.

Mr. Harkin's proposal also would leave intact a slate of programs, known as TRIO, that help low-income and first-generation students and students with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school through college.

A final version of the proposed reauthorization is due out sometime this fall. Notably, the higher education effort is likely to be Mr. Harkin's last major policy lift in the Senate, as he's set to retire at the end of this year.

Vol. 34, Issue 01, Pages 19,25

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