Just seconds before the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, the House education committee voted along party lines to move a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) to the floor for a full vote.
The bill — dubbed the PROSPER Act — is the first comprehensive piece of legislation to reauthorize the HEA introduced this Congress. Although the Senate has yet to introduce its version of a reauthorization bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the Senate education committee, has said doing so will be the committee’s first order of business in the new year.
During the 13-hour House markup session on Tuesday, Democrats attempted to derail the progress of the bill, which they have said will ultimately make college less affordable for students. Many within the higher education community have also largely rejected the bill as a whole, although many — including NASFAA — have supported several individual provisions within the bill.
In total, committee members introduced more than 60 amendments offered throughout the day and night, more than half of which came from Democrats. But in the end, the Republican majority voted down all but two of Democrats’ amendments, neither of which were directly tied to financial aid.
Democrats during the markup session attempted to make changes that would halt the removal of certain programs in the bill, including the elimination of the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) program, and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, among others. Some amendments attempted to protect undocumented students by attaching the DREAM Act to the PROSPER Act, or making so-called Dreamers eligible to receive federal student aid. Democrats also attempted to make changes that would give teeth to accountability measures within the bill, as several members said they worry it will be too soft on certain issues and allow for fraud and abuse within the industry.
Still, committee chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), held steady in her claim that the bill would ultimately help students and address the nation’s skills gap.
"The times have changed, but for any student in any sector of higher education, the questions have not. That is why we’re here today," Foxx said in her opening remarks Tuesday morning. "No Americans — no matter their walk of life — can afford for us to simply reauthorize the Higher Education Act. They need us to reform it."
Several Democrats on the committee, including ranking member Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), took issue with the fact that the bill was, they said, being rushed through the committee, and that Democratic members did not have adequate time to review the bill. Scott moved, to no avail, to halt the markup session.
"It seems like writers at The Wall Street Journal had access to the bill before Committee Democrats, as we first learned of some of the bill’s provision in an article published days before the bill text," Scott said during his opening remarks. "I have no reservation in saying that this is not the way we should begin the process of re-writing a bill that affects the lives of millions of America’s students and their families."
Foxx fired back, quipping that her Democratic colleagues "are suffering from a little amnesia," before rattling off a list of pieces of legislation that moved quickly through the committee when Democrats were in control of the House.
After opening remarks concluded, the committee moved on to debating amendments, the first of which was an "amendment in the nature of a substitute," which replaced the original bill text. The substitute amendment made several minor changes, including:
Giving the secretary discretion to stop Pell Grant awards for students with an "unusual enrollment history" until a financial aid administrator says otherwise (p. 159).
Allowing institutions to use fiscal year 2018 appropriations for FSEOG until end of fiscal year 2019 (p. 209).
Allowing students who had a TEACH Grant disbursement on or before June 30, 2018 to continue to receive those funds until completing their program or receiving the total amount of available aid (p. 213).
Changing requirements for disbursement of credit balances (p. 283).
Allowing institutions to provide information for scholarship organizations with explicit written consent (p. 398).
Changing the calculation of percentage not earned for the return of Title IV funds (R2T4) (p. 411).
Prohibiting institutions from counseling a borrower to divorce or separate or live apart to qualify for more aid (p. 445).
Defining sample items for common performance metrics for loan servicers (p. 478).
Exempting loan servicers from state licensing fees (p. 481).
Changing accreditation requirements for distance education (p. 488).
The substitute amendment was adopted early on, and all subsequent amendments were being offered with that amendment’s text as the base.
Other accepted amendments of note included: an amendment from Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) to require financial aid administrators to certify to the secretary each year that they have completed the annual counseling required in the PROSPER Act (a reminder that the PROSPER Act would require annual counseling); an amendment from Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA) ensuring that nothing prevents institutions from providing additional counseling; an amendment from Grothman to require the Department of Education (ED) to study the impact and efficiency of the Pell Grant bonus; an amendment from Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) directing the secretary to develop a consumer-friendly plain language disclosure form for borrowers of federal student loans with an annual signature; and an amendment from Messer requiring the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the feasibility and practicality of moving ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) to the Department of Treasury.
Notably, all of the committee’s Democratic members also voted in favor of an amendment from Grothman that ultimately failed and would have removed the Pell Grant bonus from the bill. During the debate of that amendment, Scott explained that he has not seen research to support the idea that a small increase in Pell Grant awards would influence behavior, and the bonus would set up a de facto system in which wealthier students would have one credit expectation to be considered full-time, and low-income students would have another, as they would be required to take 15 credits each semester to receive the Pell boost.
In the end, the committee voted 23-17 to recommend the bill to the House floor for a full vote.
Following the final vote, Scott again lamented that the bill would not ultimately help, saying it favors corporations over students.
"We can do better," he said.
Publication Date: 12/13/2017