Senate Republicans, Democrats Give Glimpse of HEA Reauthorization Priorities

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

As the Senate education committee continues its work toward drafting a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), some Republican and Democratic leaders have outlined where they stand on certain central issues, such as college affordability, accountability, and access.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a white paper this week outlining his proposals for reforming federal accountability for higher education, focusing on eliminating or modifying several current federal accountability metrics. Meanwhile, the Senate Democratic Caucus released a document outlining their policy priorities, such as allowing for student loan refinancing, streamlining the income-driven repayment plan options, and lifting the ban on a student-level unit record system.

Both the white paper and the priorities document were released shortly after the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing focused on transparency and accountability.

Alexander's white paper proposed eliminating three key federal accountability measures: the cohort default rate, the  90/10 rule, and gainful employment. While each was created with the intent to protect student and taxpayer money, according to the paper, each could be improved to better measure student success in repaying loans and educational quality. The paper also suggested replacing the cohort default rate with a programmatic-level loan repayment rate, which Alexander said could provide a more accurate representation of overall progress toward student loan repayment.

"Given the volume of taxpayer funding for higher education and the positive benefits of a quality education for individuals and society, the federal government is right to be concerned about accountability for all institutions of higher education," the report said. "... The upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a good opportunity to review, modify, or eliminate these accountability provisions as they may have become dated, poorly focused, or ineffective."

Along with the release of the white paper, Alexander requested feedback "to inform the committee's reauthorization process," which should be submitted to [email protected] by 5:00 p.m. ET on Feb. 15, 2018.

"As the Senate's education committee continues our work to develop legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act by early spring, I am asking for input from every corner of the higher education community — students and their families, professors, institutions, and others interested in our colleges and universities," Alexander said in a statement. "My goal is to create accountability measures that ensure students are receiving degrees worth their time and money, and I welcome input from all perspectives as Senator Murray and I work to reach a bipartisan result."

Alexander and Senate Republicans have yet to release a more comprehensive priorities document that covers other areas of interest, such as access and success, and overall affordability. The chairman has, however, repeatedly said that he plans to soon begin drafting a bipartisan reauthorization bill, with plans to release the bill by the spring.

The Democrats' principles document outlined four areas for improvement: affordability and student loan debt, accountability and transparency, access and success, and protecting student safety and rights.

"While our nation's higher education landscape has changed drastically over the last five decades, our core values have not," the document said.

Aside from making changes to address growing student loan debt, the Democrats also proposed reinvesting in the federal Pell Grant program by "increasing the value and reach of a Pell Grant, and protecting the Pell Grant program for current students and generations to come."

While the Democrats' document did not go so far as to suggest eliminating the use of default rates as an accountability metric, it also suggested incorporating in some way loan repayment rates to hold institutions accountable.

On campus-based aid, the Democrats said the the Federal Work-Study (FWS) and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) programs should be "protected, expanded, and targeted to low-income students. The senators also included "a successor to the Perkins Loan program" in that proposal.

"Students from wealthy families are dramatically more likely to obtain a college degree than lower income students," the document said. "If the HEA doesn't close the widening enrollment and completion gap in higher education, economic inequality will only deepen. Reauthorization should close equity gaps by supporting students who have been historically underrepresented in higher education and assisting institutions that serve them."

The Senate HELP committee will continue its reauthorization work on Tuesday, when it holds a hearing focused on affordability and student loan debt at 10:00 a.m. ET.


Publication Date: 2/5/2018

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