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House Committee Pushes Higher Ed Act Reforms Against Opposition from Ed Coalition

Today, in a marathon session, a Congressional committee is debating the latest update to the Higher Education Act, initially authorized in 1965 and amended in 2008 during the Obama administration. The most recent set of proposed changes has sparked the ire of more than three dozen higher education organizations, which have accused House Republicans of rushing the bill through committee.

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce is considering approval of the "Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform" (PROSPER) Act (H.R. 4508), introduced by Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY). A coalition of 38 groups, including associations representing community colleges, state colleges and universities, and research universities; Educause; and the American Council on Education (ACE) are pushing back against what the New York Times called an "extensive rewrite" of the law that regulates the country's institutions of higher education. The primary purpose of many of the changes appears to be to roll back Obama-era reforms targeting for-profit colleges and coming to the aid of students who took out loans to earn what turned out to be worthless degrees.

As a memo to the committee laid out, the PROSPER Act features several provisions the coalition supports:

  • A bonus paid to Pell Grant recipients to encourage them to take workloads higher than full-time;
  • A simpler process to apply for federal aid, including development of a mobile FAFSA app;
  • The elimination of origination fees on student loans;
  • Statutory authority for accreditors to use risk-based or differentiated accreditation procedures; and
  • The authority for institutions to limit borrowing.

At the same time, the coalition warned, other parts of the bill could wreak havoc with the federal system of financial aid through program cuts, restructuring policies and the imposition of new regulations that are "harmful to students and families." Among the programs up for elimination:

  • The in-school interest subsidy for undergraduate students;
  • The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program;
  • Loan forgiveness and other benefits currently available in the student loan programs;
  • Title III's "Strengthening Institutions Program";
  • $50 million from the Teacher Quality Partnership Grants program;
  • Loan forgiveness for teachers currently available through the Perkins Act; and
  • Graduate students would lose their Federal Work-Study eligibility and face limits on federal graduate loans.

As the coalition explained, the bill seeks to reduce regulations on students and institutions by incorporating some of the recommendations from the report of the bipartisan Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education. However, the good would be "offset," the memo reported, by other revisions that would "add burden and complexity," such as requiring weekly or monthly disbursements of student aid.

According to a 17-page summary of the revisions compiled by ACE, the changes also touch on a number of other areas:

  • Competency-based education. Under the proposed changes, these programs must find a way to distinguish between the knowledge a student arrived to college with and what was acquired as a result of enrollment; CBE programs must also be organized so that the school can determine what constitutes full-time and part-time for the purposes of Title IV and allows CBE programs that charge a flat subscription fee to be eligible for Title IV funding;
  • The College Navigator website would be replaced by a college dashboard displaying similar data, but without the judgment calls, such as the institutions that have the highest tuition and fees or those that have increased their tuition the most; and
  • Third-party companies could also be eligible for Title IV funding when they contract with institutions to deliver programs; in that case accreditors are responsible for ensuring program quality.

The fast pace of the amendment process has been especially frustrating to the coalition. "Despite the fact that reauthorization is already several years behind schedule, this bill is suddenly being rushed through committee," the memo noted. "This expedited timeframe limits the ability to analyze the bill and consult with affected parties, leaving the committee in the position of asking its members and the public to support legislation before knowing its full impact. We urge you to delay marking up the bill to allow for more input."

Also of concern: the financial changes under consideration. "Coinciding with the House's passage of H.R. 1, this marks the second time in less than a month that the House of Representatives has moved to significantly increase the cost of higher education for low- and middle-income Americans," the groups wrote, referring to the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which is currently in final negotiation as House and Senate versions of the new tax bill are being reconciled. "The primary goal of any reauthorization should be improving federal programs that support students. However, by any metric, this bill is worse for students. If enacted, students would need to borrow more, pay more to borrow and pay still more to repay their loans."

The group of educational organizations urged the committee to "reconsider the approach it represents," calling the bill "a step backward that would further undermine access and quality at a time when the nation needs more of both."

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