With the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, policymakers and higher education thought leaders are already well on the way to developing ideas and priorities they would like to see included in an updated bill.
A panel of presenters, including NASFAA’s Megan McClean Coval, described the different areas that financial aid professionals can expect to see highlighted during the reauthorization process, although it’s likely that any significant legislative action will not take place until 2018.
Dan Madzelan of the American Council on Education, for example, said the forthcoming policy proposals could be grouped into three categories: access, completion, and retention; college cost and student loan debt; and student learning and educational quality. Within those categories, some potential policy proposals would include FAFSA simplification (which would require congressional action), an emphasis on tuition- and debt-free college, and a focus on the role of college endowments. There has also been a renewed interest in accreditation as it relates to student learning and educational quality, Madzelan said. While the “historic” role of accreditors has focused on continuous improvement among member institutions and encouragement of educational innovation, the expected role has changed as the federal government has “deputized” accreditors to do more of the Department of Education’s work, Madzelan said.
“We’re seeing this continue … where we’ve had this slow, steady march away from the traditional accreditation role toward one more focused on consumer protection,” Madzelan said. “That’s the rub – how can they help protect the substantial federal investment, while coincidentally protecting the academic missions of their institutions?”
During the session, Coval also highlighted NASFAA’s priorities for reauthorization, which have been compiled and updated by the NASFAA Reauthorization Task Force. She also noted that although changes to federal student aid have happened outside formal reauthorization, going through the established process can be beneficial.
“We much, much prefer when policy changes go through the education committees. Those folks know the programs in and out,” Coval said. “When they’re thinking about making a change, they’re very thoughtful, deliberative. They’ll hold hearings, put bills out for draft comment, ask folks like NASFAA for their thoughts and feedback. When we have changes through the budget and appropriations committees … those changes are all happening to solve a big math problem. They often happen quickly … and at the end of the day they’re making a change because it yields a certain dollar amount.”
Nicholas Hillman of the University of Wisconsin–Madison noted that while student loan reform would likely come up during the reauthorization process, the state of research on student borrowing and loan repayment complicates things.
“When we look at the financing of higher education, the bulk of research falls into state appropriations … and student financial aid,” he said. “Within student financial aid research, it’s almost exclusively focusing on grants.”
Within the small share of research focusing on student loan debt, Hillman said the research is still a mixed bag in terms of understanding how borrowing impacts student behavior.
Finally, Sandy Baum of The George Washington University focused on ways to improve and modify the Pell Grant Program for future students.
“We all love the Pell Grant Program,” Baum said. “We inevitably get very nervous when we hear about anything that might change it. We need to take a little bit of a step back and say surely even though it has been so valuable, we want to make sure it’s designed appropriately to make it just as valuable for the future. We live in a different world than when the Pell Grant Program was first implemented.”
“We’ve changed the whole way we think about the role of the federal government in supporting higher education,” she added. “Now we sort of take it for granted that the federal government has both the right and responsibility to make college affordable and accessible for students, regardless of their ability to pay.”
A more in-depth discussion of HEA reauthorization and the policy priorities to expect will happen during the “NASFAA Inside the Beltway” session tomorrow from 8:30 - 11:00 am.
Publication Date: 7/12/2016