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Behind the scenes, Congress is making progress on revamping the Higher Education Act

By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter | Feb. 9, 2018, at 6:00 a.m.

Congress might be log-jammed, with all eyes focused on blockbuster issues like Russian interference with U.S. elections, ensuing FBI investigations, the latest looming government shutdown and a tight deadline for a legislative fix to protect from deportation the hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

But under the radar a small group of lawmakers in the House and the Senate are pushing forward with serious proposals to overhaul the country’s higher education system – and they have the legislative track record and politicking chops to pull it off.

 The Higher Education Act, the law that encompasses the entire federal student loan system and then some, hasn’t been updated in more than a decade. And White House officials and congressional GOP leaders see the overhaul as having broader economic implications – such as narrowing the skills gap to fill the more than 6 million job openings in the U.S..

Moreover, the effort comes as colleges and universities seek to redefine themselves in a rapidly changing market and become more affordable and accessible to increasing numbers of low-income applicants.

“The fact that they’re doing once-a-week hearings is an indication that this isn’t just some random thing that they want to look like they’re working on,” says Tamara Hiler, senior policy advisor and higher education campaign manager at Third Way. “I’ve been really, really surprised at the nuance of the questions that have been asked, which indicates to me how seriously they are taking this process.”

Calling the plays in the Senate are Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and the ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Republicans control the Senate, but their advantage is slim and any bill that gets to the president’s desk will likely need the blessing of at least some Democrats.

The House is also working on revamping the Higher Education Act, but it’s not taking the same bipartisan tack the Senate is. At the helm of that effort is Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, who shepherded a bill out of committee in December along party lines.The proposal included a host of non-starters for Democrats, including eliminating various federal grants and repayment programs, as well as regulations aimed at protecting student loan borrowers from for-profit colleges.

Foxx’s counterpart on the Democratic side, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., has slammed the proposal as “a partisan strategy” drafted behind closed doors, but should the two chambers conference their respective bills, Scott would be a key negotiator, as he was during the NCLB overhaul.

And while the House bill showcases the most conservative priorities in the process, there is consensus on a handful of issues that Senate lawmakers are hoping to take advantage of.

Nearly everyone agrees, for example, that the application for federal student aid should be simplified and shortened, and that applicants should be allowed to apply earlier in order to get a better understanding of costs. There’s bipartisan support for ideas that would allow students to earn credits by showing what they know, versus simply completing a certain number of course hours – an idea known as competency-based learning.

There’s even support on both sides of the aisle for more major changes, like paring down federal aid and repayments offerings to make it less confusing, and opening those federal aid purses to job training programs and others, like apprenticeships, aimed at filling the skills gap.

Even when it comes to accountability, it seems that both sides of the aisle have bent some, with Democrats acknowledging the issue extends beyond the for-profit sector, and Republicans, including Alexander, recognizing that quality and good data play an important role in affordability.

To be sure, the devil is always in the details and bipartisanship isn’t easily achieved.

“You can keep things appearing one way as long as there’s not legislative text on the table, but once there is bill text out there, you throw down your cards and people can see what you want to do,” says Ben Miller, senior director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. “If the opening bid is super partisan, I think it would be hard to have it go very far.”

While not legislation, Alexander unveiled a 12-page white paper last week that included a host of specific policy ideas, some of which are non-starters for Democrats.

Take for instance, the proposal in Alexander’s White Paper to scrap what’s known as the “90/10 rule” – a provision that limits for-profit colleges to receiving no more than 90 percent of their revenues from federal student aid.

Republicans argue it unfairly targets the career college sector, but Democrats have been steadfast in their insistence that it protects veterans and service members who are disproportionately targeted by for-profit schools looking to boost their revenue.

Another big non-starter for Democrats is anything that smacks of eliminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which erases debt after 10 years for borrowers who go into public service careers, like teaching and law enforcement.

Republicans have also backed proposals, much to the chagrin of Democrats, that would nix various Obama-era regulations, including those aimed at reeling in bad actors in the for-profit sector and providing students who have been defrauded by them financial relief, as well as those meant to standardize across all institutions of higher education the value of a credit hour.

“I think you’d have a hard time getting 60 votes for any of those things,” Miller says.

Murray, however, has her own wish list that doesn’t exactly appeal to Republicans, including, among many other things, a demand to tackle campus safety, including sexual assault, in any reauthorization.

“It does appear that there’s a lot of agreement from both sides for the reasons of what and why [they should reauthorize the law],” Hiler says. “There’s a very clear understanding of the problem, that things are really complicated, and that the outcomes aren’t as good as they should be. But the how is where things start to breakdown.”

The administration has been short on details about what it would prefer to see in a reimagined Higher Education Act. The administration’s first budget proposal included pitches to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and pare down the current borrowing and repayment options to simply one grant and one loan, but that’s where the pitches end.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos herself has been mum on specifics as well.

She’s made successive calls for a “major shift” that prioritizes programs like apprenticeships over four-year college degrees – sentiments echoed last week when president Trump called for more “vocational” training during his State of the Union Address and followed that up with a pitch to lawmakers at the GOP retreat.

And in December, DeVos hosted a roundtable discussion where she heard from higher education industry leaders about ways to better align program offerings with the needs of local employers, to maintain quality as the number of workforce-focused programs increases and to get employers to trust applicant qualifications beyond a four-year degree.

Some congressional onlookers point to a short-staffed Education Department as one of the reasons why DeVos and her team have largely remained silent on the topic, while others say that’s just DeVos being principled in her belief that solutions shouldn’t come from the federal government.

As she said at the roundtable discussion in December: “Government is not the best at finding new solutions to tough problems.”

While it’s unclear whether Congress will get a bill to the president’s desk this year given the shortened legislative window that comes with an election year, that’s the stated goal by lawmakers in both chambers. Foxx is waiting for leadership to call her bill to the floor of the House for a full chamber vote, while Alexander said Tuesday he hopes to have a bill ready for a vote early spring.

Even if the current momentum doesn’t produce legislation before the end of the year, legislative trackers say the process underway should make for a quick and tidy process next Congress.

“I’m confident we can work together and negotiate in good faith and get to a yes answer,” Murray said Tuesday during a committee hearing to Alexander, who replied, in turn, “I look forward to doing that, as we have before.”