College & Workforce Readiness

Congress Turns Attention to Higher Education Act Renewal

By Lauren Camera — June 09, 2015 5 min read
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With movement currently stalled on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization in both chambers of Congress, lawmakers have turned their attention to another pressing education matter: overhauling the Higher Education Act.

The postsecondary education law, 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 smooth the path of disadvantaged students into higher education.

The access and readiness policies and programs, in particular, make the HEA rewrite of keen interest to K-12 school administrators and families.

Education committee leaders in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives seem poised to begin introducing legislation after convening several hearings on various higher education issues, including affordability and consumer information.

Potential Potholes

But some of the same issues that stand to hold up renewal of the ESEA could also delay the higher education reauthorization: a congested congressional calendar, forthcoming appropriations battles, and looming 2016 presidential politics.

“HEA is a conversation that might take a decade,” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank. “But where you start with that conversation will reflect where it ends.”

The path to postsecondary eduction begins with students and their families collecting information on various programs. As such, members of Congress have spent a lot of time focusing on how to disburse the most useful and accurate information about institutions of higher education 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 graduation and dropout rates, job attainment rates, and average starting salaries.

The Obama administration has made data transparency a high priority and launched a college navigation tool early in its White House tenure. But Republicans have criticized it for providing so much information that it actually overwhelms students and families. They’d like to see a revamped and pared back version of the tool.

In the area of college readiness, many students, especially those from low-income families or those who would be the first in their family to attend college, need help academically preparing for college. That’s where federal TRIO programs come in.

There’s been a longstanding battle over the scoring rubric for TRIO, the slate of programs that receive federal funding to help low-income and first-generation students go to college, as well as some debate about how effective the programs are, largely due to the difficulty policymakers have had evaluating them. But so far during the reauthorization hearings, there’s been little focus on how lawmakers might reformat them.

However, with Republicans looking to shed some of the federal government’s financial burden, TRIO programs such as Upward Bound and the College Access Challenge Grant will likely be scrutinized. The challenge-grant 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.

Missing Pieces

Another topic members of Congress are sure to examine but haven’t spent much time debating yet: teacher-preparation programs.

There are more than 80 such programs across 10 agencies, and a major goal of Republicans last year was to streamline as many as possible. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, proposed shifting the Teacher Quality Partnership program into the ESEA altogether. Democrats are more likely to seek to expand teacher-preparation offerings, especially for on-the-job training in high-need schools, rural schools, or high-need subjects.

One of the most difficult parts of overhauling the HEA 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 to more than $30 billion in the current fiscal year.

There is bipartisan agreement that students should be able to use their Pell grants to pay for courses they take year-round, including the summer. There is also agreement that information should be pulled from IRS filings from the prior tax year in order to automatically qualify students for Pell and other federal student loans, which would essentially eliminate the need for the burdensome federal aid form currently used.

“Those two things cost money and if it weren’t for the monetary side of it we’d have those back already,” Mr. Miller said.

Republicans have supported polcies to change Pell eligibility requirements by limiting the grant to low-income students, but Democrats are generally determined to maintain the maximum grant and eligibility for as many students as possible.

Lawmakers also are trying to find ways to simplify the loan and repayment system so that, generally speaking, students can get access to one federal loan and/or one federal grant, and have one repayment system, as opposed to the various loan and repayments systems that currently exist.

Political Odds

While the HEA overhaul faces major legislative obstacles, breaking off smaller and less controversial pieces of the law may present a path forward.

That’s the strategy Rep. Kline took last year with some success, when he ushered through the chamber three bipartisan bills dealing with less-controversial higher education issues—although student loan debt was not among them.

Though the Senate historically prefers to pass legislation in big packages, there may be some appetite for such a piecemeal approach. Indeed, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is working to broker a bipartisan HEA proposal with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., recently called the HEA “the piling up of well-intentioned laws and regulations, done without anyone first weeding the garden.”

Mr. Miller, of CAP, also noted that the most important changes to higher education policy have used legislative vehicles other than the HEA to become law.

“So the question is, do we keep following that path, or do we move back to a role where it really is the big HEA [reauthorization] with a lot of important stuff in it?” he asked.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as Congress Appears Poised to Tackle Higher Education Issues

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