College & Workforce Readiness

Congress Gears Up for Higher Ed. Law Renewal

By Alyson Klein — September 17, 2013 6 min read
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There’s no shortage of proposals in Washington to inject additional scrutiny into higher education amid soaring student loan debt, as Congress considers renewal of the Higher Education Act.

The issue has gotten a lot of political attention lately, thanks in part to this summer’s protracted debate over how to cope with a planned rise in student-loan interest rates—resulting in a plethora of postsecondary accountability proposals, including a high-profile pitch from the president himself to tie federal financial aid to student outcomes.

“I think there’s going to be a lot more emphasis on making sure that information flows out of higher education into the K-12 sector,” said David Hawkins, the director of public policy and research of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents both high school and postsecondary officials.

“Every policymaker out there seems to be jumping on this. … Clearly, as a nation, we are concerned about the transition to college, that we’re not giving [students] enough information, especially given the amount of aid that flows into higher education,” he said.

Teacher colleges are likely to be under a special scrutiny, as the Obama administration and members of Congress contemplate holding them accountable for whether their graduates are able to move the needle on student achievement once they graduate and enter the classroom.

What’s more, the HEA also governs major college-access programs—including the financially stressed Pell Grants—as well as programs that help prepare traditionally disadvantaged students for postsecondary work, such as GEAR UP (for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), TRIO, and Upward Bound. All of those programs have seen their share of federal funding whittled away as lawmakers seek to rein in domestic spending.

Rating Colleges

Just last month, President Barack Obama called for developing a college-rating system to help prospective students determine which postsecondary options would give them the biggest bang for their buck. The ratings would be based on access, including the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants; affordability, including average tuition and loan debt; and outcomes, including graduation and graduate earnings.

Postsecondary Access

Congress is beginning work on the Higher Education Act, which has big implications for college access, college-preparatory programs, and teacher education. The House education committee recently solicited ideas for a reauthorization, and the Obama administration has weighed in. Among the ideas under consideration, and where they’re coming from:

• Link some federal financial aid to a college-rating system, which would take into account outcomes like graduation rates, as well as affordability and accessibility. (Obama administration)
• Let 7th or 8th graders know that they may be eligible for Pell Grants, which help low-income students cover tuition costs. (American Council on Education, along with 38 other education organizations)
• Develop a data system to help colleges track outcomes—such as employment information—and make that available to prospective students (Legislation by U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.)

• Expand the Teacher Quality Enhancement Grant program, which supports teacher colleges, to include residency programs for principals. (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, legislation by Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.)
• Encourage states to provide technical assistance and other help to teacher-preparation programs they deem to be low-performing. (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, legislation by Rep. Honda, and Sen. Reed)
• Allow “high-performing teacher-preparation programs” to opt out of burdensome paperwork, as long as they set a high bar for entry, and ensure graduates exit only after they demonstrate that they can move the needle on student achievement. (Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Tom Petri, R-Wis.)

The system could be used to tie tens of billions of dollars given each year in federal student aid to college performance.

There are also bipartisan proposals in Congress that seek to get at the issue of college accountability—including one by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The measure would, among other steps, create a data system allowing prospective students to pinpoint a particular institution’s average postgraduation earnings, rates of remediation, average cost, and other information before they enroll.

This isn’t the first time that the federal government has tried to make more information available to students. Past efforts had a mixed record.

Case in point: The most recent reauthorization of the HEA, which passed in 2008, created a “tuition watch list,” which would essentially call out colleges that raise tuition very quickly. But the information isn’t easily accessible to students, says the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization representing some 1,800 education organizations.

There are more than 50 different watch lists with different characteristics, the group writes in recommendations on higher education reauthorization to the House education committee.

The watch lists are “an example of a good idea that provides so much information to students that it simply overwhelms them,” the ACE says.

Still, the group agrees that better tracking of student outcomes, while controversial, is an idea worthy of consideration during renewal of the Higher Education Act.

Pell Explosion

The Pell Grant program—which offers grants of up to $5,645 to help the neediest students access college—will likely be at the center of a debate over whether the federal government should broaden its investment in the student-lending program.

Demand for the grants has exploded even as lawmakers have sought to reduce domestic spending. That’s led Congress to tighten program eligibility and scrap the year-round grants that allowed students to make use of Pell aid during the summer.

The ACE and student advocates want Congress to reverse some of those cost-savings measures. And college advocates are also hoping to let students know earlier in their precollegiate careers whether they’ll be eligible for Pell Grants, by 7th or 8th grade, or even sooner.

When it comes to teacher colleges, some higher education groups remain wary of the prospect of a federal mandate that would require states to consider the performance of recent graduates as classroom teachers.

That’s an idea already in play in Louisiana—and it could even become part of federal regulation through a set of long-awaited rules governing teacher preparation that the U.S. Department of Education has been struggling with for well over a year.

Colleges seeking the seal of approval from the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation must also document graduates’ classroom performance under the newly approved set of standards from the national accrediting group.

Training Educators

The idea has some support in Congress, specifically in a House bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act that was approved this summer. It included a bipartisan provision encouraging states to let “high performing” teacher-preparation programs wiggle out of some federal regulations, as long as they had high standards for the students entering the programs and ensured that teachers were able to improve student achievement before they entered the classroom, and met other requirements.

Similar language was included in the Senate education committee’s bill to rewrite the NCLB law.

Some advocates are hoping Congress will go even further when it comes to holding teacher colleges accountable for student outcomes.

“HEA should struggle with how do we improve our prep programs so that teachers come out with the skills they need on day one,” said Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, an advocacy group for poor and minority students. Right now, the federal role tends to focus on “inputs”—such as whether a program offers the Myers-Briggs personality test to prospective teachers—not student outcomes, she said.

When Congress debates HEA renewal legislation, “there’s going to be a fight about how do you include ‘value added,’ ” Ms. Tromble said, referring to the practice of trying to isolate a teacher’s impact on student growth, as gauged by test scores.

But the policy could be a tough sell in academia.

“Our thinking is that it really is the state role, primarily, to ensure accountability for teacher preparation,” said Jane West, the vice president of policy, programs, and professional issues for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

But she acknowledged that “states have not been as vigilant as they could be at looking carefully at the program process. We do think there is a role for the federal government” in providing incentives to bolster teacher-preparation programs.

Ms. West is a fan of legislation, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., that would put a federal focus on the proliferation and support of teacher-residency programs, which allow prospective teachers work full time in schools while taking classes.

A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2013 edition of Education Week as Congress Gears Up for Higher-Ed. Law Renewal


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