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3 Things to Know About the New Bill Promising ‘Debt-Free’ Higher Education

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 24, 2018 3 min read
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House Democrats unveiled their plan to revamp the nation’s higher education law on Tuesday. They’ve been working on different pieces of this issue since last year, and it’s been a top priority for the GOP as well as Democrats for a few years now. So what are the highlights of the Aim Higher Act when it comes to things like applying for student aid and teacher preparation?

One helpful way to understand them is to compare the Democrats’ bill with the Republicans’ plan to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, called the PROSPER Act, which the GOP-led House education committee passed earlier this year. Let’s go over a few key differences between the two proposals.

  1. Future Teachers: The Aim Higher Act preserves the TEACH grant program, which provides student aid to those who agree to teach certain subjects in high-needs schools. And the bill extends its provisions to those preparing to work in early childhood education. In addition, the Democrats’ legislation creates new competitive grant programs aimed at future teachers and school leaders.

    The legislation also preserves the current section of the Higher Education Act that deals with teacher-preparation programs under Title II, as well as Public Service Loan Forgiveness that allows teachers to cancel out their higher education debt under certain circumstances.

    Meanwhile, the Republicans’ PROSPER Act ends TEACH grants, Title II, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

  2. Applying for Financial Aid: Both the Democratic and GOP bills seek to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—better known by its acronym FAFSA—but don’t use the same approach to reach that goal.

    The Democrats’ bill would place a student filling out the form onto one of three FAFSA “pathways” for receiving federal aid based on the “complexity” of his or her finances. (That’s a plan recommended by the Education Commission of the States.) Those applicants who received a federal means-tested benefit in the prior two years would receive a full Pell Grant without answering the full set of FAFSA questions.

    The Republicans’ proposal, meanwhile, also aims to cut the number of questions certain applicants using the FAFSA would have to answer, but doesn’t create those three automatic pathways. Their PROSPER Act would also mandate the creation of a mobile FAFSA app for students to use, something the U.S. Department of Education is already working on.

  3. Pell Grants: The Democrats’ proposal increases the maximum Pell Grant award by $500 for each year, indexes Pell funding to inflation, and makes most of it mandatory federal spending. The Republican proposal doesn’t touch the maximum award amount for Pell Grants or change it with respect to inflation or mandatory funding, but it does introduce a new “bonus” Pell award of $300 per year for students under certain circumstances.

    More broadly, Democrats’ pledge to make higher education “debt free” would be accomplished through a new federal-state partnership to encourage more state funding for colleges and universities, and a requirement that states that take federal funding in that partnership offer students two years of tuition-free community college, among other things. This is something states such as Tennessee have offered with some success.

The new legislation is part of a big push on higher education by House Democrats. Under their “Aim Higher” initiative unveiled last year, they’ve introduced several bills that deal with individual issues like the FAFSA since that time. The Aim Higher Act brings the different, previous Democratic proposals under one umbrella.

House GOP leaders haven’t brought the PROSPER Act to the floor for a vote by the full chamber. And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced earlier this year that he didn’t think the Senate education committee would produce a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this Congress. Alexander is the committee’s chairman, and reauthorizing HEA has been his biggest education priority for some time.

So while the Democrats’ bill may not be headed anywhere any time soon, momentum for the GOP’s efforts for overhauling the Higher Education Act seems to have vanished, at least for now.

You can see a fact sheet about the Aim Higher Act from House Democrats.