It may be a slow time for K-12 activity on Capitol Hill, but you can’t really same the same about higher education. That’s because over the last several weeks, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have introduced bills designed to address college access, costs, and other policies.
On the GOP side, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, has walked point on a package of bills dealing with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—an issue that allows Alexander to use perhaps his favorite prop of an extremely long application for aid—as well as short-term Pell Grants and other issues. Meanwhile, House Democrats have unveiled the College Affordability Act, which builds on past legislation and aims to increase Pell Grant awards, lower student-loan payments, and more.
Both proposals would amend the Higher Education Act, which was last reauthorized in 2008 and is overdue for reauthorization.
So what’s worth highlighting about them? Let’s take a look at a few salient points.
1) Grants Would Grow
In addition to making Public Service Loan Forgiveness accessible to a broader pool of potential applications, the College Affordability Act “reduces the number of payments required for teachers to receive loan forgiveness,” according to a fact sheet accompanying the bill. (That’s accomplished through allowing repayments to the Stafford Student Loan Forgiveness Program for teachers to simultaneously count for repayments to PSLF.) Public service loan forgiveness has become a particularly controversial issue in the last few years, after complaints swelled that the program was rigid and hard to interpret, leaving many teachers out in the cold.
The legislation would also increase TEACH Grant awards—available to students who agree to become teachers in certain subjects for a set time period—from $4,000 to $8,000, among other changes to the program. It would also protect against recent “inadvertent” conversions of these grants into loans.
For high school students bound for colleges and universities, the Alexander-backed Student Aid Improvement Act would expand Pell Grant eligibility to 250,000 new students, and make an additional 1.3 million student eligible for the maximum Pell Grant awards, which under the senator’s bill would increase by $1,080 over the most recently appropriated limit before the bill’s passage. (The current maximum Pell award is $6,195 for 2019-20.) His legislation would also extend short-term Pell Grants to certain programs such as vocational education, a controversial idea. Meanwhile, Democrats’ bills would index Pell Grants to inflation, which they estimate would result in a maximum award of $8,305 for fiscal 2029.
2) A Diversified Educator Workforce
The House Democrats’ legislation would reauthorize Teacher Quality Partnerships; among other changes included in that reauthorization, Democrats point to the fact that under the bill, colleges and universities could join states in applying for TQP grants to work with school districts. The bill would also allow TQP funds to create new pipelines for principals.
In addition, the College Affordability Act would establish a funding stream for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions for programs to help recruit and retain a diverse teacher workforce. Alexander’s legislative package has its own provision to establish $255 million in annual mandatory aid to HBCUs and MSIs, although Democrats have objected to the idea because it’s tied to Alexander’s other higher education bills.
3) Simplified FAFSA
Both the proposals from Alexander and from the House Democrats aim to “simplify” the FAFSA process. In fact, both would do so in part by reducing the number of questions. The Senate proposal, for example, would cut the number of FAFSA questions from 108 to a minimum of 17 and a maximum of 30. And the College Affordability Act would place students into one of three FAFSA “pathways” based on their financial backgrounds in order to make the process easier.
The House and Senate proposals both include what lawmakers say will make it easier for students to understand different offers of financial aid.
It’s worth pointing out that although Alexander in particular likes to display a paper FAFSA form to show just how long it is, it’s not the typical experience for students to have to fill out that entire form. A mobile-friendly FAFSA app debuted last year, although there were accompanying glitches.
Keep this thing in mind: You shouldn’t bet huge wads of cash on these proposals getting signed into law by President Donald Trump. The odds of any single bill getting over the finish line are not great at any time, and the prospects now are particularly bad given the House impeachment inquiry. Higher education is too tangled up in national politics for the skids to be greased enough for easy passage. For example, unlike what you hear from some Democrats on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, for example, the House bill doesn’t cancel all or a vast majority of student debt. So there’s a mismatch between Capitol Hill and prominent White House hopefuls.
Still, Alexander, who will not seek reelection in 2020, is particularly interested in getting at least some revisions to federal higher education law over the finish line before he retires. We wrote about his aims for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act at the start of 2018. And he’s stressed that taken together, the proposals in his chamber come from a bipartisan group of 31 senators (19 Democrats and 12 Republicans).
Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., holds the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, during an interview on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2014. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)