House Republicans Press for Higher-Ed Overhaul in 2018

The Chronicle of Higher Education

House Republicans Press for Higher-Ed Overhaul in 2018

DECEMBER 12, 2017

Updated (12/13/2017, 10:34 a.m.) with results of the Tuesday session of the House committee and comment from Paul Mitchell, a Republican congressman.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives began in earnest on Tuesday to finalize an ambitious bill to reauthorize the main federal law governing higher education.The House’s Committee on Education and the Workforce, led by Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, kicked off a marathon session lasting nearly 14 hours — until just before the stroke of midnight — to consider amendments and other changes in a draft of the Higher Education Act legislationthat she introduced this month. Ms. Foxx’s proposed changes in current law are meant to streamline student aid, pare regulations, and open the federal coffers to a wider variety of institutions that offer skills training. The legislation, known by the acronym “Prosper” for Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform, passed out of committee on a party-line vote and will now go to the full House for consideration.

“No American — no matter their walk of life — can afford for us to simply reauthorize the Higher Education Act,” said Ms. Foxx in her opening remarks. “They need us to reform it.”

Democrats on the committee agreed that higher education needed reform, but they argued that the bill — and the process by which their Republican counterparts were seeking to pass it — missed the mark.

“It seems like writers at The Wall Street Journal had access to portions of the bill before committee Democrats,” said Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the panel’s top Democrat, “as we first learned of some of the bill’s provisions in an article released days before the bill text.”

Mr. Scott further excoriated the process: “I have no reservation in saying that this is not the way we should begin the process of rewriting a bill that affects the lives of millions of America’s students and their families.” He moved to shelve the markup, as the drafting session is called, but the motion was voted down.

House Republicans argued that many of the issues covered in the bill had already been the subject of ample discussion in recent years. Rep. Brett Guthrie, Republican of Kentucky, noted that there had been “26 hearings in the 113th, 114th, and 115th Congresses on issues within higher education,” by the committee and by his Subcommittee on Higher Education and Work-Force Development. (The current Congress is the 115th.)

Ms. Foxx went a step further during one colorful moment, saying that “my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are suffering from a little amnesia” before reading a list of bills that moved quickly through the committee under a Democratic majority.

But updating higher education’s landmark law, already nearly five years overdue, isn’t a matter limited to the House of Representatives.Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and chair of his chamber’s education committee, plans to introduce a Senate version of the bill as the “first order of business” in the new year, according to a written statement provided to The Chronicle.

But as Republicans in both chambers press to finish their proposals in the coming months, a number of policy concerns and political forces stand in the way. Higher-education associations have welcomed some proposals rolling back regulations, but generally oppose the House bill. And even some conservatives have weighed in against the House bill, calling it well meaning but flawed.

The House’s legislation also looks as if it might become ensnared in a debate over immigration policy. Democrats on the House education committee on Tuesday introduced several amendments aimed at helping students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which has protected from deportation thousands of young people, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, attempted to attach the Dream Act to the legislation, and Rep. Adriano Espaillat, Democrat of New York, proposed an amendment that would make Dreamers eligible for federal student aid. Both amendments were rebuffed in voice votes.

The political challenges are even greater than the differences over policy. Democrats on the Senate education committee may not cooperate with Senator Alexander. Many of those Democrats were bitter about his efforts to push through the nomination of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and those votes will be necessary to pass a higher-education bill on the floor of the Senate.

The calendar may pose the biggest hurdle for the higher-education bills. With 2018 an election year, Democrats will have to gauge whether it’s better to cooperate with their Republican colleagues or hold out hope of taking control of Congress as the majority party after the midterm voting next November.

What the Bill Would Do

The House bill is a fundamental rewrite that would undo many priorities of the Obama administration, including a repeal of its controversial gainful-employment rule. But the bill would also continue some of the previous administration’s policy goals; it aims to simplifythe Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the Fafsa, and the student-aid system as a whole by moving to a “one grant, one loan, one work-study” system.

It would also eliminate a loan-forgiveness program for public servants; however, people already enrolled in the program would be grandfathered in. (An amendment to preserve the program, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, enjoyed bipartisan support during committee debate, but it was narrowly rejected in a recorded vote, with two Republicans joining the Democrats.)

The legislation also would seek to expand opportunities for apprenticeships and would open up financial aid to programs requiring few credit hours.

Some of the most controversial issues in higher education, such as hazing, sexual assault, and free speech on campuses, are also addressed in the legislation.

One amendment would require colleges to enhance rules preventing hazing. Although it was supported by several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, some Democrats argued that it would not go far enough.

Critics of the bill said it would not do enough to hold anyone accountable on a range of issues.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, Democrat of Ohio, called the proposal “weak” and said it “holds not one person responsible for anything.”That has been a consistent theme of arguments against the bill as a whole: that it would not do enough to hold anyone accountable on a range of issues. For example, the bill would seek to eliminate a provision that penalizes career colleges whose graduates earn too little to repay their student loans. It also would eliminate the requirement that for-profit colleges earn at least 10 percent of their revenue from a source besides Title IV student aid.

Democrats in the Senate, too, have already panned the House bill. “It’s extremely disappointing that House Republicans are taking another partisan step in the wrong direction and introducing a plan that would harm students by cutting billions in financial aid and undermining protections for survivors of sexual assault,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the education committee, said in a written statement after the bill was released.

“Despite the concerning number of predatory for-profit colleges that have taken advantage of students,” Senator Murray added, “this bill would give for-profits more taxpayer money, while loosening the standards they need to uphold.”

Coupled with the tax-reform bills recently passed by the House and the Senate, Democrats said the education bill represented the latest in a “Republican assault on higher education.”

‘Falls Short’

Reaction to the legislation outside of Capitol Hill has been mixed.

The Business Roundtable, an association of business interests and corporate leaders, praised the House bill’s focus on job training. But the group also called for measures that were not in the bill, such as improving the kinds of data available to students in selecting a college, in particular the earnings of graduates of an entire institution, not just those who used federal financial aid. The group also called for maintaining the amount of financial aid available to college students.

Higher-education associations and policy researchers also gave the House bill mixed marks.

The American Council on Education praised the legislation’s efforts to roll back some regulations, as proposed by a 2015 federal task force.

“Reauthorization of this landmark law is overdue, but it is vital to undertake this complicated process in a way that does not undermine access to and the quality of postsecondary education.”

But Ted Mitchell, president of the council and an Education Department official under President Barack Obama, said the bill would add to the cost of college by raising student-loan interest rates and eliminating 1.5 million student-aid grants.”Reauthorization of this landmark law is overdue, but it is vital to undertake this complicated process in a way that does not undermine access to and the quality of postsecondary education at a time when the nation needs more of both,” Mr. Mitchell said in a written statement.

At the American Enterprise Institute, Preston Cooper, an education-data analyst, said the House bill was a good first step. But it “falls short in crafting a viable accountability regime for colleges and universities receiving federal subsidies,” he said.

While changes in the law are needed, Congress must take care not to enact more bad policy into statute, Mr. Cooper wrote. “Lawmakers should be wary of eliminating current accountability rules, even though many are deeply flawed, when the replacement fails to address many important aspects of institutional accountability.”

Even one of Ms. Foxx’s Republican colleagues on the committee, who ultimately voted to pass the legislation, thought it could have done more.

“With today’s legislation, we had a rare opportunity to make meaningful change, and we fell short,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan. “I voted in favor of the Prosper Act because ultimately it is a step forward from the status quo that higher education in this country so urgently needs.”

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “it falls short in truly allowing American consumers to make the best decision for them in pursuing higher education, upward mobility, and long-term success.”