You may have noticed that with movement currently stalled on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization front, Congress has turned its attention to another pressing education matter—overhauling the Higher Education Act.
The HEA, which expired at the end of 2013, is a sweeping piece of federal legislation that includes the entire 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.
Most recently, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate education committee, announced that they’re forming bipartisan working groups to draft a reauthorization of the higher education law, a strategy not too different from the one they used to craft the bipartisan ESEA measure that’s currently awaiting Senate floor time. The working groups will specifically address accreditation, accountability, affordability and financial aid, and sexual assault and safety.
“The Higher Education Act we see today—a nearly 1,000-page law with an equal amount of pages devoted to higher education regulations—is simply the piling up of well-intentioned laws and regulations, done without anyone first weeding the garden,” said Alexander in a statement, adding that his priorities include “eliminating unnecessary red tape, saving students money, and removing obstacles to innovation.”
The two have already held two hearings on how to rewrite the law. One focused on the role of consumer information in college choice; another looked at the idea of risk-sharing, in which colleges bear some financial responsibility for a portion of the federal loans that their students do not repay. A third hearing, which will address affordability issues, is scheduled for June 3.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the U.S. Capitol, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, has been focusing on a higher education legislative overhaul as well.
So far this year Kline has convened two hearings on how the law might be re-imagined: a broad hearing that looked at flaws of the entire law, and a more narrowly focused hearing on how to increase access and completion for low-income and first-generation students.
Republicans on the House committee said they’re hoping to fix the law by focusing on five main areas: empowering students to make informed decisions, simplifying and improving student aid, promoting innovation, increasing access and completion, and ensuring strong accountability while limiting the federal role.
You might recall that around this time last year Kline unveiled an 11-page white paper outlining his HEA reauthorization priorities. They included some heavy lifts, like consolidating all existing student loans into one loan, and all existing grants into one grant. The road map also proposed streamlining repayment plans into two options: a standard repayment plan, and some sort of income-contingent repayment plan.
Members of Congress are serious about overhauling the law, and their efforts are bolstered by the fact that it expired in 2013. But the same issues that stand to hold up the ESEA reauthorization could also delay the higher education reauthorization—a congested congressional calendar, forthcoming appropriations battles, and looming 2016 presidential politics
For now, however, education committees in both chambers are full-steam ahead.
The behemoth higher education law includes lots of moving pieces, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the big picture. Here’s what’s most important for K-12 followers:
Know Before You Go: There’s lots of focus on how to disburse the most useful and most accurate information about institutions of higher education to students and parents in a way that’s not overwhelming. That information includes things like tuition and other fees, available scholarships, loans, and loan repayment estimates. It also includes data like graduation and dropout rates, job attainment rates, and average starting salaries.
Or as Mark Schneider, former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, puts it, students should be able to easily answer these questions:
- Will I get in?
- Will I get out?
- How long will it take?
- How much will it cost?
- How much will I make?
While commissioner of NCES from 2005 until 2009, Schneider oversaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator tool, which became a top priority on the Obama administration’s higher education agenda. Republicans have criticized it for providing so much information that it actually overwhelms students and families and is therefore ineffective.
Increasing Access and Completion:
TRIO programs, a slate of programs that receive federal funding to help low-income and first-generation students go to college, will likely get some reformatting in an overhauled higher education law as there’s been a longstanding battle over its scoring rubric.
And with Republicans looking to shed some of the federal government’s financial burden, programs like the College Access Challenge Grant will likely get some face time as well. That program provides matching funds to partnerships of federal, state, and local governments and philanthropic organizations that are aimed at increasing the number of low-income students who are college ready.
One of the most difficult parts of overhauling the Higher Education Act will be putting the Pell grant on solid financial footing. In the past, Congress has had trouble fully funding the Pell grant, which is a quasi-entitlement program and gets both discretionary and mandatory federal funding. During the recession, the Obama administration increased the income threshold for eligible recipients, and more people than ever accessed the grant, causing the cost of the program to skyrocket.
Republicans have supported policies to change Pell eligibility requirements by limiting the grant to low-income students only and allowing students to draw down the federal aid over a six-year period. While Democrats support the latter, they are generally determined to maintain the maximum grant and eligibility for as many students as possible.
There are more than 80 teacher prep programs across 10 agencies, and a major goal of Republicans will be to streamline as many as possible. In fact, last year, Kline proposed shifting the Teacher Quality Partnership program into the ESEA altogether. Democrats, meanwhile, are more likely to seek to expand teacher prep offerings, especially for on-the-job training in high-need schools, rural schools, or high-need subjects.