House Democrats' 'Aim Higher Act' Pushes Back on GOP Higher Ed Reauthorization Bill

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Editor's Note: Official legislative text for the Aim Higher Act was released after publication of this article.

As Republican lawmakers' work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) appears to have come to a halt, Democratic lawmakers in the House on Tuesday released their own version of a bill to overhaul America's higher education system, with several provisions that would strengthen and expand federal student aid programs.

The reauthorization bill, dubbed the Aim Higher Act, stems from a legislative campaign by the same name that Democrats launched more than a year ago to put forth "bold policy solutions" for higher education. Many of the provisions in a summary document for the Aim Higher Act come from bills released under the campaign, such as the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act, which would, among other changes, boost the maximum award by $500 and permanently index the grant to inflation. A number of provisions, such as one that would reform the Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program, were offered as amendments during the House education committee's markup of the PROSPER Act – House Republicans' reauthorization bill.

"The Aim Higher Act is a serious and comprehensive proposal to give every student the opportunity to earn a debt-free degree or credential," said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), ranking member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "It provides immediate and long-term relief to students and parents struggling with the cost of college, it puts a greater focus on helping students graduate on time with a quality degree that leads to a rewarding career, and it cracks down on predatory for-profit colleges that peddle expensive, low-quality degrees at the expense of students and taxpayers."

Although the Congressional Budget Office has not yet scored the bill, Scott said during a press conference unveiling the bill that provisions to “cut out a lot of fraud and abuse” would yield savings. He acknowledged that there are expensive proposals within the Aim Higher Act, such as those to move toward free college models, but said he could “guarantee” the cost would be “a lot less than the tax cut,” referencing Republicans’ sweeping tax reform proposal passed last year.

Other provisions in the summary document are entirely new, such as plans to boost funding for TRIO and level-fund GEAR UP, to reorganize responsibilities in the higher education accreditation system, and revive the Perkins Loan Program, among other changes.

Notably, the bill will also contain, according to the summary document, several positions that NASFAA has long advocated for, such as eliminating student loan origination fees, moving toward full mandatory funding for the Pell Grant program, allowing for the automatic income recertification for borrowers in income-driven repayment plans and automatic enrollment in those plans for delinquent borrowers, and simplifying the FAFSA by placing applicants into one of three pathways based on the complexity of the student’s and family’s finances.

“The Higher Education Act is long overdue for an update, and it’s encouraging to see proposals to help strengthen and expand access to students who want to pursue their college dreams,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “This legislation governs programs that impact millions of students and families each year — it’s imperative that lawmakers work to get it right, and keep students’ best interests front and center.”

The bill is a rebuttal to the PROSPER Act, which passed out of the House education committee in December and has since been in limbo, as Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the committee, pushes to have the bill scheduled for a floor vote for consideration by the full chamber.

While it's unlikely that lawmakers will take more steps toward reauthorizing the HEA this year, both bills signal where the two parties stand should Republicans maintain control of the House or Democrats regain the majority after midterm elections this fall.

Other significant changes proposed in the bill, according to the summary document, include changes to both the FWS and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) programs’ allocation formulas. The Aim Higher Act would phase out the current FSEOG allocation formula, eventually replacing it with one that would base the amount of funding on the level of unmet need at an institution and the percentage of low-income students, rather than how long the institution has participated in the program. The bill would also create a pilot program to allow them to use up to 5 percent of their FSEOG funds to provide emergency grants to students. For FWS, the bill would replace the current allocation formula with the same one proposed for FSEOG, and include a “bonus allocation” for institutions that have strong outcomes for serving and graduating Pell Grant recipients.

The bill also includes several proposals to reshape accountability in higher education. Under the Aim Higher Act, accreditors’ roles would shift to focus more on academic quality, while ED would focus on compliance issues and state authorizers would be tasked with monitoring student complaints, ensuring the safety of campus facilities, and ensuring programs meet the state licensure requirements. Democrats are also seeking to give ED more authority over accreditors by granting the agency the ability to “veto accreditor-set standards it deems are too low.”

Democrats are also seeking to address accountability issues by adjusting the cohort default rate metric to take into account both the number of borrowers at an institution and the number of borrowers who are in long-term forbearance, which the summary describes as 18 months or longer, and making changes to the 90/10 rule: shifting the ratio to 85/15 and ensuring veteran benefits are included in the count.

As of late, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken a deeper interest in enhancing accountability measures for not just institutions, but also accreditors and loan servicers. Earlier this year, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a white paper outlining his ideas to improve accountability and transparency in higher education. The following day, Senate Democrats released a document outlining their policy priorities for a reauthorization bill. While it appears there may be a small amount of agreement on some issues, such as incorporating a loan repayment rate in addition to or instead of a cohort default rate for accountability purposes, the Democrats' document included some ideas that may be met with resistance among Republicans, such as lifting the ban on a student-level unit record system, which is also included in the Aim Higher Act.

It’s unlikely that the new bill will be considered by the House education committee, as Republicans are still pushing for the PROSPER Act to come forward for a vote by the full chamber.

In the coming weeks, NASFAA’s policy & federal relations staff will be providing a series of more detailed analyses into Title IV issues contained in the bill. Stay tuned to Today’s News for more information.

 

Publication Date: 7/24/2018


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