College & Workforce Readiness

Congress May Turn Focus to Higher Ed. Law’s Renewal

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 28, 2017 7 min read
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee, and his counterpart in the House, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., have made clear they will take a close look at the Higher Education Act, which is overdue for renewal.
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Early in the summer of 2015, progress on a new federal K-12 law seemed to be stalled, and key members of Congress were turning their attention to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

But the script has flipped, and 18 months later, as the transition to the Every Student Succeeds Act enters its final stages, lawmakers are taking a close look at revamping the law governing colleges and universities.

A broad set of issues will be under the microscope, from Pell Grants for low-income prospective students, to the information about higher education programs made available to families as K-12 students consider their postsecondary careers.

Republican lawmakers appear ready to put their own stamp on the HEA, which technically expired in 2013 and was last reauthorized in 2008. Both Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the leaders of their respective chambers’ education committees, have made it clear they’re taking a close look at the law. “Our major focus over the next year will be on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act,” Alexander said in a recent interview.

Alexander has previously expressed worries about student overborrowing and has indicated support for colleges and universities having some “skin in the game,” or financial responsibility if students can’t pay back their loans. And he’s likely to push for a dramatically simplified Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Alexander has criticized the length and complexity of the form for years.

A 2015 Senate education committee task force’s report on higher education regulations will likely play a key role in shaping the next HEA, according to an Alexander aide. That report said Washington’s current slate of higher education regulations is costly to comply with and also stated: “Moreover, many regulations are unrelated to education, student safety, or stewardship of federal funds—and others can be a barrier to college access and innovation in education.” On the House side, Foxx held a committee hearing on higher education issues in February where she was critical of rising costs and how much information colleges and universities must report as a result of Washington mandates.

“The federal government has tied states and institutions up in red tape” over the eight years of the Obama administration, Foxx said. “It’s time for the federal government to get out of the way.”

‘Driving the Train’

“I think Alexander is still really driving the train,” said Michael V. Reilly, the executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “Alexander, with [Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate education committee’s top Democrat], are still going to construct this Higher Education Act. I think Foxx may be in charge of addressing some of the vestiges of the Obama administration.”

The role of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the law’s reauthorization remains to be seen.

A longtime K-12 school choice advocate, DeVos does not have significant experience in the higher education world. (Neither did her two predecessors in the Obama administration, Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr.) In remarks last month to a community college legislative summit, DeVos did indicate support for making Pell Grants more flexible in order to help those students “working to graduate more quickly.”

Foxx, meanwhile, has moved quickly to address one holdover issue from the Obama years that’s related to the HEA. But this effort didn’t involve a reauthorization bill.

In February, the House of Representatives voted to block regulations governing teacher-preparation programs that were finalized late last year by the Obama administration. Those rules require colleges to rate all their teacher-training programs as either “effective,” “at-risk,” or “low performing.” They also allow measurements of teacher effectiveness to be based on factors other than test scores or test-based teacher evaluations.

However, Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., who introduced the House measure to block the rules, said on the House floor that “teacher preparation should be addressed by reauthorization of the Higher Education Act” and not through executive “fiat.” (As of late last week, the Senate had not voted on whether to block the teacher-prep rules.)

Collection and Reporting

Education advocates are watching to see how the administration handles the various sorts of data students generate in the higher education system. At the broadest level, an improved HEA would better identify concentrations of high remediation rates in colleges and universities in order to help students choose different postsecondary tracks, said Phillip Lovell, a vice president at the Alliance for Excellent Education, which promotes college- and career-readiness.

“More transparency around the pathways that kids take in high school and their postsecondary outcomes could lead to parents and students making more informed choices about how likely the pathway that they’re on is going to lead to them being prepared for postsecondary [work],” Lovell said.

One of the most consistently controversial parts of debates over data from higher education has been whether to create a federal system based on “student-unit records,” which track information from individual students. Those records could provide a variety of data points on graduation rates, debt loads, and other metrics. Supporters say many colleges favor such a system, and it would bring together various streams of information into a single database that could be very useful for students, college counselors, researchers, and others. Critics say such data would be cumbersome for colleges to collect and report, and that a combined database would be redundant and create student-privacy concerns.

Alexander has also been skeptical about how much students use the sort of data from higher education made available by Washington. That’s a concern shared by the registrars and admissions officers association’s Reilly, who said that for many students from low-income backgrounds, “the reality of being able to go out and check those kinds of resources and decide where you’re going to go is far less practical than [for] students with income.”

If there are certain privacy protections and partnerships used to help create student-unit records, Reilly said, his association could end up supporting such records.

The student-unit record could prove a tough nut to crack, especially with the current congressional leadership in place. During the last round of negotiations over the renewal of the HEA, for example, Foxx wrote a provision into the bill banning such a student-unit record system.

Past Policy and Pell Grants

But the previous skepticism from Alexander and Foxx about detailed data collection and reporting on college students is at odds with the type and level of changes needed to help students make better decisions, said Ben Miller, the senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.

“If you want to get to a world where we can get students more personalized information about how people like you did ... we really can’t achieve that without substantial changes to our federal postsecondary data systems,” Miller said.

The Obama administration unveiled a redesigned College Scorecard in 2015 that shows information about debt load, graduation rates, and other data points. The scorecard has gotten mixed reviews, and the scope of information it presents to prospective students is limited because it only reports information on those students who receive federal financial aid to attend college. But its fate under the Trump administration and this Congress is unclear, in part because congressional Republicans might see it as “too much of an Obama thing,” Miller said.

Public colleges and universities, as well as some congressional Republicans, have indicated their support for more detailed reporting on students in higher education. One example of this is the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2015, which would have relied on individual-level information and transcripts and published average postgraduation earnings and average federal loan debt, while removing personally identifiable data. It was co-sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Separately, changes for Pell Grants might have broader support in Congress.

Lovell of the Alliance for Excellent Education said he’s hopeful that the program is changed to provide more support for dual-enrollment and early-college high school programs, citing such a proposal written by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Warner, as well as a pilot for dual-enrollment programs instituted by the Obama administration.

“We know that kids who are better prepared in high school are better prepared to go into postsecondary and succeed,” Lovell said of such uses for Pell Grants. “It should be a money saver and an economic-growth strategy.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as Congress May Turn Focus to Higher Education Law


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