In Washington, it is not uncommon for both parties to agree that a federal program needs to be fixed—typically the debate starts over what good reform looks like. In higher education policy, however, there is the more unusual additional agreement on a few policy points over what common sense changes could be workable.
The Higher Education Act, the federal law that governs the bulk of higher education policy in Washington, has been awaiting reauthorization since 2013.
In that time, Congress has made some changes to the law, but has mostly settled for appropriations procedures and continuing resolutions to extend the most recent 2008 version of the law. Congress has yet to present the White House with a comprehensive bill updating the legislation.
Ted Mitchell, an undersecretary of education in the Obama administration, said in 2014 that the law had “silted” and produced some “bad outcomes” as a result of “perverse incentives” buried in it.
More recently the Chairwoman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., has said that updating the law is “a top priority” for her committee in the 115th Congress.
Some of the proposed changes are relatively uncontroversial and have bipartisan support. It is expected that Congress will act to simplify the federal student aid form, add flexibility to the Pell Grant program, and streamline loan repayment programs.
Possible sticking points that could derail reauthorization include: fights over the role the government should play in determining accreditation, a conservative push for deregulation and limiting education department power, and progressive proposals for how to address the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.
Both the left and the right generally agree that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form that prospective college students fill out is too long.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate committee that oversees education, has helped spearhead a bipartisan effort to simplify FAFSA from over 100 questions down to two. The proposal would determine aid eligibility based on two metrics: family size and adjusted household income.
Carrie Warick, who directs policy and advocacy for the National College Access Network (NCAN), said in an interview that the current convoluted process discourages students from applying for aid and results in $24 billion in grants and loans being “left on the table” each year.
NCAN is a Washington, D.C.-based 501(c)(3) that represents organizations who make college more accessible for low-income and underrepresented students. While Warick agrees that FAFSA should be cut down, her organization promotes a “streamlined” version that finds a compromise between Sen. Alexander’s postcard-sized application, and the current accordion-style foldout form that millions of students wrestle with each year.
She explained that while the federal government might be contented with two questions, state officials and higher education institutions that base aid and loan packages on FAFSA often want more information.
NCAN member organizations have expressed concerns that cutting the form down too dramatically could end up forcing students to fill out more paperwork overall to receive sub-federal level aid.
Year-Round Pell Grants
Another area where experts expect Congress to reach an agreement, is a proposed tweak to the Pell Grant program, an aid program of nearly $29 billion annually, that would give eligible students the flexibility to avail themselves of summer course offerings.
Transitioning the grants from a 9 month program to a year-round program would be beneficial for students who work, take classes part-time, or have otherwise irregular schedules.
While some proposals would mean increasing the $5,920 cap that a student can receive per year under the program, the hope is those students would also be using the summers to satisfy degree requirements more quickly.
Some conservatives, such as Speaker Paul Ryan, have previously proposed a freeze on increases and a restructuring of the Pell Grant program in a bid to cut spending.
Warick’s group, NCAN, opposes cuts to the program, but she believes that adding flexibility to how students use the program still has bipartisan viability.
“The devil is in the details,” she said. Many of the proposals she has seen, however, share the goal of helping students graduate more quickly.
Finally, there has long been a push in higher education policy circles to cut through the maze of student loan repayment options offered by the government.
The Department of Education, which directly backs a trillion dollars worth of student loan debt, oversees a byzantine system of programs and services that structures debt repayment plans.
In a 2014 panel, Mitchell, the former Obama administration official, called the system “a crazy matrix.” There is concern that many borrowers are struggling to figure out which programs are available to them and in their best interests.
The government’s loan repayment apparatus has been in the news recently as the outgoing Obama administration hit the student loan management company Navient with a series of consumer protection lawsuits.
Potential Snags and Context
While there are some areas where Democrats and Republicans are likely to find common ground, there are also areas where the two parties will have to hammer out fundamental ideological differences if they plan to work together to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.
In particular, Democrats and the former Obama administration favored a more active role for the federal government in determining accreditation, which determines what schools are eligible for participation in federal aid programs.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate HELP committee, has called for federal action to combat sexual assault on campus under an expansive reading of Title IX. Such efforts clash with Republican talking points that stress restoring local control to universities and colleges.
The Obama administration had also staked out some combative stances on for-profit higher education that higher education policy watchers are expecting the Trump administration to soften.
Backers of for-profit schools took particular exception to the revelation that a coding error in a government database and Obama era education department regulations had resulted in damages to or even closings of for-profit higher education institutions.
News broke yesterday that Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, has agreed to lead a task force on higher education policy for the new administration. Details are still emerging on what the task force will focus on and how the move could impact the discussion surrounding the Higher Education Act.
Finally, the pitched national debate over the nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education has hardened partisan battle lines in an area where historically the two parties have found ways to work together. The fallout over the sudden national focus on the direction of education policy could potentially alter the landscape for how new bills and regulations are received moving forward.