An Interview with House Subcommittee on Higher Education Chair Virginia Foxx

 Rep. Virginia FoxxCongresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) is the chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education for the 112th Congress. During her first three terms, Foxx established herself as a champion of conservative values and her priorities for the subcommittee reflect her political ideology. She says the committee will focus "on ensuring that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, without waste or fraud; reducing burdensome regulations in education; and reforming federal higher education programs." Before being elected to Congress in 2004, Rep. Foxx served as a school board member, college professor, and community college president.

In this interview, Foxx discusses Pell Grant program funding, the new Program Integrity regulations and how to tackle rising student debt loads.  

Q: What are your higher education and student aid policy priorities for the next two years?            

The focus of the subcommittee will be on ensuring that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, without waste or fraud; reducing burdensome regulations in education; and reforming federal higher education programs.  We're facing historic budget deficits and we must find ways to reduce spending and the federal deficit.

Q: What is your view of the new "Program Integrity" regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education? Do you plan to address any of these new regulations through the legislative process? 

The program integrity regulations need a second look.  I've heard a lot of concerns from educators and institutions about these regulations and I expect that the committee will schedule hearings to learn exactly how these regulations will impact colleges and universities.  

Q: Some argue that the Department circumvented the legislative process with some of these regulations. Do any of the regulations cross the boundary between federal regulation and academic purview? Or between federal regulation and state purview? 

As with any federal education regulation, there is a balance to be struck between accountability for how taxpayer money is spent and reducing the burden of red tape on those working to comply.  In this case, the Department appears to be crossing the line into territory best negotiated by states and institutions.  The Department also seems prepared to apply regulations unevenly across different types of institutions.  We need to examine why this is taking place and determine whether or not these burdensome new regulations need to be revised or rolled back.  

Q: Some of the Department's new regulations on program integrity (and forthcoming gainful employment regulations) are intended to prevent students from taking on unmanageable or unreasonable amounts of student debt. Do you agree with the Department's approach? If not, what is the best way to address the growing problem of student debt? 

The best way to reduce student loan debt is to focus on two important priorities: lowering the actual sticker price of higher education and providing transparency for how taxpayer dollars are being utilized in higher education.   However, increased federal involvement and more taxpayer dollars have not lowered the cost of higher education over the decades of federal involvement in student aid.   We need to ask why this is so and then address underlying problems instead of simply throwing more and more taxpayer money at sky-high college costs. So far the Department's efforts are rather uneven and appear to create potential backdoor cost controls -- which do not work.

Q: We recently conducted a survey of our members on the topic of administrative burden. The results indicate that growing administrative and regulatory burdens are swallowing up valuable resources leaving less time for financial aid administrators to counsel students on subjects like student loan debt. Do you think there are opportunities to reduce administrative and regulatory burdens by simplifying the student aid system? If yes, how would you like to see the system simplified? 

Yes, federal red tape grows unchecked unless Congress proactively trims it back.  This is true of almost any program and student aid is no exception.  That's why every House committee will be pursuing ways to reduce the federal government's crushing burden on the private sector.  While I do not have any targets for simplification at this time, the subcommittee will be moving aggressively to reduce regulatory burdens that stifle innovation and productivity and that detract from the mission of higher education. 

Q: A recent Congressional Research Service report highlights the funding challenges presented by the Pell Grant program. The report offers two solutions: reduce program costs by limiting who is eligible and how much they are eligible for, or making Pell a true entitlement program. What do you think of these two possible solutions? 

The last thing American taxpayers need is another so-called "entitlement" program to finance.  Our country is already drowning in unfunded liabilities.  Creating one more program which spends taxpayer funds on autopilot with no accountability would be fiscal malpractice.  

Pell Grant spending doubled in the past couple of years.  The subcommittee has a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that this massive increase in spending is the best possible use of taxpayer dollars and that this money is being spent wisely.

Q: There is currently a lot of uncertainty about the Pell Grant program that could cause problems for students planning to attend college in the fall. The U.S. Department of Education recently published Pell Grant Payment and Disbursement Schedules that schools are using to notify students about how much aid they are eligible for in 2011-12. However, Congress could change these award amounts when it acts to provide spending for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. How serious of a problem do you think this uncertainty is for students and families? Should Congress do something to eliminate this uncertainty? If so, what? 

Uncertainty over funding levels is an important issue.  Unfortunately, the 111th Congress failed to pass either a budget or full appropriations bills, creating uncertainty in many sectors.  During the 112th Congress the House is focusing on reducing spending and cutting the deficit.  To that end Budget Committee Chairman Ryan will be working with the Appropriations Committee to set specific spending levels for the rest of FY2011 and complete the unfinished work of the 111th Congress.  I expect that funding levels for the Department and for Pell Grants will be set by the appropriators by sometime in the spring, which will go a long ways towards reducing uncertainty.