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House Starts In On HEA

07/11/2014

Inside Higher Ed. July 11, 2014.

The U.S. House education committee on Thursday advanced a package of legislation that would boost federal support of competency-based education, overhaul how cost information and other data is provided to prospective college students, and require more counseling for federal student loan borrowers.

Lawmakers approved three bills that are part of House Republicans’ piecemeal approach to rewriting the Higher Education Act, which expires at the end of this year but isn't likely to be reauthorized by then.

The measures all garnered bipartisan support Thursday, but many Democrats on the committee said they were concerned the bills did not go far enough in directly addressing the rising price of college and providing student loan borrowers with needed consumer protections.

Representative George Miller, the top Democrat on the panel, said it was “unconscionable” that lawmakers would not take action on the problem of student debt.

“We must move quickly and decisively to make college more accessible and affordable, to increase oversight and quality assurance of colleges and loan servicers, and to promote new and innovative practices that can reduce student loan debt,” he said. “And this can only happen through a full-scale rewrite of the Higher Education Act.”

Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the committee, defended his approach to putting forward a series of smaller-scale proposals, which he said was helping to increase bipartisan work on rewriting the law.

“No doubt there is some skepticism about moving forward in what might be described as a piecemeal approach, but remember these are complicated issues,” he said. “A step-by-step approach will better-inform members and the public about the policies we are pursuing.”

The first bill approved Thursday was legislation that would create a more robust experimentation program for competency-based education at the Education Department. The Obama administration is currently using its existing authority to grant some colleges regulatory flexibility to experiment with innovative educational models, including competency-based education. The department is evaluating which applications to accept through that "experimental sites" program.  

Lawmakers also advanced legislation aimed at simplifying and streamlining the information the federal government publishes about colleges for prospective students. It would also eliminate the Education Department’s annual lists of the most and least expensive colleges as well as the institutions with the highest and lowest average net prices.

In addition, the committee approved bill that would boost annual counseling for student loan borrowers, including borrowers receiving Parent PLUS loans.

The American Council on Education in a letter Wednesday generally supported the package of legislation, calling it “a welcome step towards reauthorization of the Higher Education Act."

Still, Molly Corbett Broad, the group’s president, wrote that ACE had concerns about the way graduation rates would be calculated under the consumer information bill and that some provisions in the student loan counseling legislation would add unnecessary complexity.  

Failed Democratic Proposals

House Republicans also rejected several efforts by Democrats Thursday to more aggressively change the Higher Education Act.

Representative John Tierney proposed a new program that would have allowed students to refinance their existing student loan debt at lower interest rates. That proposal, which is part of Democrats’ election-year agenda, failed to advance in the Senate last month.

Tierney, who is locked in a tight re-election race in Massachusetts, said that lawmakers had to choose between helping struggling student borrowers or millionaires. Under the proposal, the debt relief for students would be financed by ending tax breaks for high-income Americans.

Republicans on the panel shot down Tierney’s amendment on procedural grounds. They similarly stopped an effort by Representatives Susan Davis and Mark Takano, both Democrats from California, to restrict the flow of federal dollars to for-profit colleges. That amendment would have included veterans’ benefits in the 90 percent cap on the share of their revenue that for-profit colleges may derive from federal government sources.

Kline, who has been a supporter of for-profit colleges, said he opposed such a change to the so-called “90/10 rule” because it would have the effect of cutting off student access to some of those institutions.

A third Democratic proposal that failed to garner enough support would have required the Education Department to include information on its website about how well a college’s former students are repaying their loans.

Representative George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the panel, said that his amendment was needed because prospective students deserved to know whether a college was graduating students who are able to pay back their loans.

Kline said he opposed the including the repayment rate because he said that it would be unfair to institutions that educate students who are more likely to default on their loans. He cited the 2012 federal court decision that largely struck down the Obama administration’s “gainful employment” rule on the basis that the repayment rate metric in that regulation was arbitrary.

The three pieces of legislation approved Thursday now move to the full House of Representatives for consideration. Kline previously said he expects that House leadership will bring some Higher Education Act bills to a vote before the November elections. 

Meanwhile, Senator Tom Harkin, the Democrat who leads the Senate education committee, has put out his own sweeping plan to change the Higher Education Act. Harkin is accepting public comments on his draft proposal through the end of August.