HEAA: Democrats Propose Various Changes to General Provisions

 Reauthorization - Masthead  

By Joan Berkes, Policy & Federal Relations Staff 

Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), introduced a comprehensive Higher Education Act reauthorization bill on June 25. The Higher Education Affordability Act (HEAA), which includes several provisions for which NASFAA has been advocating, takes the form of a discussion draft and marks the HELP Committee’s first step toward reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. This article is the first in a series that will examine various provisions proposed by this bill.

The Harkin bill discussion draft proposes a number of amendments to the General Provisions section of the Higher Education Act. This article summarizes several of them:

  • Credit balances
  • Ability to benefit (ATB)
  • Consumer information
  • Program Participation Agreements
  • Competency-based demonstration project 

Disbursement of Credit Balances

The discussion draft proposes to require electronic payment of credit balances by institutions to students. The bill defines credit balance essentially the same as current regulations do, that is, any amount credited to a student’s account that exceeds allowable institutional charges, as defined by the Department of Education (ED). Electronic payments would be made to a deposit account or a general use prepaid card with the protections afforded under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (15 U.S.C. 1693 et seq.). Institutions would be prohibited from requiring or encouraging students to select a particular financial institution to which an electronic payment would be made, and would be prohibited from denying or delaying the disbursement of credit balances to a student’s choice of financial institution. 

 ED would also be directed to conduct a pilot program, in consultation with the Treasury Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that would allow students to receive credit balances from an institution by using the Treasury Direct Express system, or through any other low-cost alternative determined by ED.

Ability to Benefit (ATB)

A student who enrolls for the first time on or after July 1, 2012, must have a high school diploma or its recognized equivalent (such as the GED), or must have been home schooled, to receive Title IV aid. The bill would reinstate an ability-to-benefit (ATB) alternative to that requirement, modified from its previous form, and apply it retroactively to students who first enrolled on or after July 1, 2012.

Under the new ATB eligibility requirements, the student would have to be enrolled in an eligible career pathway program and meet one of the following standards:

  • Achieve a score on an independently administered examination demonstrating that the student can benefit from the education or training being offered. The examination and its administration, and the required score, would have to be approved by ED.
  • Meet a state-designated process that has not been disapproved by ED after taking into account the cultural diversity, economic circumstances, and educational preparation of the populations served by the institutions that utilize the state process.
  • Satisfactorily complete 6 credit hours or the equivalent coursework, applicable toward a degree or certificate offered by the institution making the determination. 

The bill defines “eligible career pathway program” as a program that:

  • is organized to meet the needs of adults;
  • is aligned with the education and skill needs of the regional economy;
  • has been developed and implemented in collaboration with partners in business, workforce development, and economic development; and
  • fulfills specific requirements regarding academic and career goals.

Consumer Information

The Harkin bill adds provisions regarding harassment to the current section of law requiring disclosure of campus crime policies and statistics. “Harassment” is defined as “conduct, including acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility (including conduct that is undertaken in whole or in part, through the use of electronic messaging services, commercial mobile services, electronic communications, or other technology) that—

“(I) is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive so as to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a program or activity at an institution of higher education, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment at an institution of higher education; and

“(II) is based on a student’s actual or perceived—

(aa) race;

(bb) color;

(cc) national origin;

(dd) sex;

(ee) disability;

(ff) sexual orientation;

(gg) gender identity; or

(hh) religion.”

An institution would have to develop a statement of policy on harassment and distribute it with the campus security policy. The policy would have to comprehensively prohibit harassment of enrolled students by other students, faculty, and staff pretty much anywhere, any time, and any way. The statement would also have to describe institutional programs to prevent harassment, procedures to follow in case of harassment, and the institution’s handling of reported harassment. The policy statement would have to address sanctions against perpetrators and services for victims, and identify the employee responsible for receiving and tracking reported incidents.

Program Participation Agreements

The bill would add a condition to the Program Participation Agreement (PPA) requiring institutions to certify that they have designated a staff member to be a single point of contact to assist homeless children and youth (as defined in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act) and foster care children and youth. 

The institution would have to:

  • post public notice about financial aid and other assistance available to homeless or foster care children and youth, including Title IV eligibility as independent students;
  • develop a plan for accessing housing resources during and between academic terms; and
  • include questions on its admission application regarding homeless or foster care status, to be answered voluntarily for the limited purpose of being provided information about financial aid or any other available assistance. 

The bill would also add to the PPA provision regarding veterans, applicable to institutions that enroll more than 100 students who are veterans. The institution would have to develop a plan to ensure the success of veterans, which includes:

  • designating certain faculty or staff to serve as a point of contact;
  • establishing a working group responsible for veterans issues;
  • describing available disability services;
  • identifying students who are veterans to provide better assistance in the receipt of VA educational assistance;
  • describing the evaluation and maximization of credits that can be received for military training and service.

The PPA would be furthered amended to require institutions to adopt policies regarding academic leaves of absence, readmission, and dismissal for psychiatric reasons that are comparable to such policies for physical health and other medical reasons, including policies that include the same guarantees of due process and appeal.

On another topic, the bill states unequivocally that incentive compensation is an “inappropriate mechanism in the delivery of higher education for institutions of higher education wishing to participate in programs under title IV of the Higher Education Act” and that “the ban on incentive compensation… is intended to preclude its use by institutions… at any point in the recruitment, enrollment, education, or employment placement of students.” 

The bill calls for a ban on “any commission, bonus, or other incentive payment to any person or entity at any phase of the academic process based directly or indirectly on success in—

(I) securing enrollments or securing or awarding financial aid;

(II) performance in educational coursework;

(III) graduation;

(IV) job placement; or

(V) any other academic facet of a student’s enrollment in an institution of higher education.” 

The bill expands on the ban as part of the institution’s PPA.

The PPA would also be amended to prohibit and invalidate predispute arbitration agreements in any contract with a student or prospective student for enrollment at the institution.

Competency-based demonstration project

The Harkin bill would establish a demonstration program to explore ways of delivering education and disbursing student financial aid that are based on demonstrating competencies rather than credit hours. Goals of the demonstration program would include:

  • potentially lowering the cost of postsecondary education and reducing the time needed to attain a postsecondary degree;
  • identifying specific statutory and regulatory requirements that should be modified to provide greater access to high-quality competency-based education programs;
  • finding the most effective means of delivering competency-based education; and
  • determining the appropriate level and distribution methodology of Federal assistance for students enrolled in competency-based education.


Publication Date: 7/2/2014

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