Proposed Higher-Ed Revamp Could Shake Up Student Aid, Teacher Prep

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A long-awaited bill to overhaul the nation's higher education law would change how students obtain federal student aid, place new limits on that financial aid, and eliminate current federal language governing teacher preparation, among other notable shifts.

The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform, or PROSPER, Act was introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House education committee, and Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., the chairman of the subcommittee for higher education.

Notably for students in high school with plans for college, the bill aims to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, by aligning it more closely with information families already provide for federal tax purposes. The bill would also allow families making less than $100,000 annually to use a shorter version of FAFSA that is currently only available to families making less than $50,000.

The bill contains a new requirement that the U.S. education secretary work with higher education, states, schools, and college-access programs to inform high school students about financial aid by the time they're in 10th grade. The PROSPER Act would also mandate "enhanced" counseling for students getting federal financial aid, along with their parents. The requirement essentially means that students and parents would have to officially affirm they understand the terms of their loans on an annual basis—current law does not require this.

Republican Blueprint

The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act was introduced earlier this month by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House education committee, and Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky. It would reauthorize the federal Higher Education Act and make changes affecting college access, teacher preparation, and more.

The bill aims to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (known as FAFSA) by making it easier for students to use tax-related information. It would also create a FAFSA mobile app. Several annual limits for federally backed loans would also go up under the legislation.

The PROSPER Act repeals Title II, the part of higher education law governing teacher preparation. Among other things, this would mean that Teacher Quality Partnership grants, which are intended to improve teacher-preparation programs, would lose their authorization for their current $41.3 million in funding.

The legislation would create a new College Dashboard program that would provide prospective students with average debt statistics from colleges and universities.

The bill reauthorizes the Pell Grant program, which provides loans to students from low-income backgrounds, until 2024. It creates a new Pell “bonus” for students who complete 15 credit hours per semester, but doesn’t contain automatic increases for the maximum Pell award.

Title II, the part of the current Higher Education Act that puts requirements on teacher preparation, would be eliminated through the PROSPER Act. Title II requires states to hold teacher-prep programs accountable, although states often don't exercise close oversight of those programs.

In addition, the Teacher Quality Partnership grants, which are designed to improve teacher-prep programs and now receive $41.3 million, would lose their authorization under the legislation from Foxx and Guthrie. And the bill would end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which allows teachers and others in government jobs to have their student-loan debt forgiven under certain circumstances. The Perkins loan-forgiveness program, designed to help teachers in low-income schools or those teaching certain subjects like math and science, would also be eliminated.

Deregulation and Access

The bill represents a step forward in some ways but fails to increase the maximum annual Pell Grant and doesn't really streamline the college-application process for students from families earning less than $50,000, said Carrie Warick, the policy director at the National College Access Network, whose organization advocates for students of color and first-generation college-goers. That's because it doesn't let students use information from federal benefits programs for low-income families to help make the FAFSA easier, she said.

"It is a bill that could go further for low-income students," Warick said. "But it is not a bill that is on the whole bad."

Reauthorizing the nation's main law governing colleges and universities is now slated to be the top education priority for the GOP-led Congress over the next year. Republican lawmakers in control of Congress have expressed a general desire for reducing the federal regulatory footprint in higher education.

Congress last reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008. In a statement accompanying their introduction of the PROSPER Act, Foxx and Guthrie said that the "promise of a postsecondary education is broken" and that the bill moves to restore it.

Shortly after Foxx and Guthrie introduced their bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, announced a new policy director for education on the committee, Bob Moran, a former policy director at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Double-Edged Sword

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has displayed specific support for "simplification" of FAFSA, saying in a statement shortly before the PROSPECT Act was introduced that "students and schools have demanded and truly deserve a better, simpler process."

In addition to reauthorizing the Pell Grant program that provides loans to low-income students through 2024, the GOP bill would provide a $300 Pell "bonus" to students who complete at least 15 credit hours in a semester.

But there's no new automatic adjustment to the maximum limit on Pell Grants in the bill, which would freeze that maximum limit for the next five years.

There are also new, higher limits on federal student loans. For example, a dependent student in his or her first year would see the maximum federal loan cap rise from $5,500 in current law to $7,500.

Because of how the bill structures loans and opens lending to a more diverse set of higher education programs, it could ultimately lead many students to choose options other than traditional four-year colleges.

Warick said that the new, higher limits on student aid represent a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she said they will help some students attend colleges that might otherwise have been too costly for them. On the other, Warick noted it could lead to more student borrowing at a time when the level of outstanding student debt is also a national concern.

Vol. 37, Issue 15, Page 17

Published in Print: December 13, 2017, as GOP Proposes Revamp for Higher Ed. Law
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