House Higher Education Act Reauthorization Hearing Covers Range of College Affordability Issues

By Allie Arcese, Sr. Director of Strategic Communications & Engagement

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Following their counterparts in the Senate, the House Committee on Education and Labor on Wednesday kicked off its Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization efforts with a nearly four-hour hearing that ran the gamut of topics on college cost and affordability, from income-share agreements and student debt, to risk-sharing proposals and investing more in need-based aid programs.

It was the first of five hearings the committee plans to hold, tackling perhaps the most difficult and wide-ranging issue when it comes to higher education reform. The committee heard from a panel of five witnesses: Douglas Webber of Temple University; Alison Morrison-Shetlar of Western Carolina University; Jenae Parker, a student at Franklin University; Beth Akers of the Manhattan Institute; and James Kvaal of the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks that the timing of the hearing “could not be better,” given the recent news of a widespread multi-million dollar college admissions bribery and fraud scandal that was reported on Tuesday.

“Yesterday’s news was a powerful reminder that elements of our higher education system are in desperate need of repair,” Scott said. “The alleged use of bribery and fraud to game the college admissions system illustrates a reality in our higher education system: Students from wealthy families and students from poor families are not treated fairly. … Our education must be an engine of economic mobility for all students, not an instrument for preserving the elite status of wealthy families.”

Scott went on to say that reauthorizing the landmark higher education legislation provides an opportunity to level the playing field and to rectify obstacles that prevent low-income students and students of color from accessing a higher education. He also acknowledged the “vast differences” between Republican and Democratic approaches to drafting a reauthorization bill, as was illustrated last year through the PROSPER Act and the Aim Higher Act.

“The goal of our work in this committee in higher education is not just to write a new higher education bill, it is to pass a comprehensive higher education bill. Accordingly, we propose to work together in a bipartisan way that produces a bill that can pass the House, pass the Senate, and be signed by the president,” he said. “Students, families, taxpayers, and institutions of higher education deserve a good-faith effort to address the urgent challenges facing the higher education system.”

Scott said the committee would consider a range of proposals to address issues with college affordability, such as creating an incentive for states to reinvest in higher education, restoring the purchasing power of the Pell Grant and expanding eligibility to other types of programs, and overhauling the federal student loan system.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), ranking member of the committee, also emphasized the importance of the Pell Grant program and expressed an interest in expanding grant eligibility to students in short-term or skills-focused programs. She also criticized the complexity of the federal student loan system, and questioned whether all institutions are managing their finances appropriately.

“These facts should be further indication that college costs are not simply a matter of supply and demand or loan amounts or interest rates, but a symptom of deeper systemic flaws in American postsecondary education systems and, perhaps more importantly, popular perceptions,” she said. “I have long said that we need bold reforms in postsecondary education if we’re going to make the system work for students again, and I’ve put those ideas forward. I believe in the necessity of comprehensive reform today more than ever.”

NASFAA submitted a written testimony for lawmakers to consider, urging them to keep in mind the critical role that student aid plays in the overall cost of college for students, and suggesting various ways lawmakers could strengthen aid programs, such as by providing a "bonus" Pell Grant award to students taking 15 credits or more. 

"Students access a variety of innovative and traditional postsecondary education options with the support of student aid programs offered by institutions, states, and the federal government," the letter said. "All of these sources of financial assistance have an important role to play in ensuring student access to and success in higher education, fulfilling the promise of the HEA that no qualified student will be denied a higher education due to lack of financial resources."

In his written testimony, Webber outlined the various reasons for the increases in college cost, including reductions in state funding, the Bennett Hypothesis (to a degree), and what is known as Baumol’s cost disease—salary increases in the private sector that drive up the cost to hire an instructor at an institution for certain fields.

And on the notion of “risk,” Webber said one of the biggest risks is not attending college—or starting a program and dropping out.

“The popular press likes to focus on students who have amassed extremely large sums of debt, often greater than $100,000. While these stories are often heart-wrenching, they are extreme outliers and not representative of the larger student debt problem,” he said. “The true student debt crisis is concentrated among those borrowers who did not obtain the degree. Addressing non-completion should be a top priority for future research and policy, and will allow us to provide real solutions to the most vulnerable college-attenders.”

This anecdote was given a face with Parker’s testimony, as she told the committee how various hardships in life led to her dropping out of college, re-enrolling multiple times in community college, and navigating multiple jobs while caring for family and trying to avoid debt. She emphasized that the problem with college cost is not as simple as just tuition and fees—costs for books and supplies, transportation, and housing also factor in.

“I was working hard for a better life for myself and my daughter, but the bills got so tight that more than once we found ourselves short on money for food. This was no simple matter of not having enough ramen to eat. We lacked sufficient money to have food to eat on a regular basis. Then, as if things could not get any worse, we were evicted from our home,” she said. “I remember thinking that these problems were my fault. I thought this was happening because I had made bad choices or was not trying hard enough. But now I know that as many as 50 percent of college students are also dealing with food and housing insecurity. Even students attending elite private colleges are facing these challenges. More than 1 in 10 students are homeless. Are we all just not cut out for college? Have we all done something wrong?”

She continued: “I know the odds are low that Journey and I will ever escape poverty, but I also know that a college education helps. I am clearly willing to work for this bachelor’s degree. But on days when money is tight and the bills are due, I wonder why I am paying the price for a badly broken system. What would happen if Congress instead built a college financing system that matched the strength and ambitions of today’s students? I hope my story makes clear how desperately we want to improve our lives, and how very real the struggle of paying for college has become.”

Later during the hearing, Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT) referenced Parker’s story, and connected it to President Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal, which proposed making significant cuts to student aid programs like the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) programs. Hayes shared her own story of struggling to pay for college and being told to have her parents take out a PLUS loan.

“If I’m already working three jobs and helping take care of my family, my mother didn’t have the capacity to take out a loan on my behalf. So it just perpetuates this idea of generational poverty,” she said. “It says if you already don’t have it, you can’t have access to it.”

Hayes questioned whether the proposed elimination of those programs should be considered “a direct attack on low-income families.”

Morrison-Shetlar responded, saying “anything that prevents people from being able to apply for any aid or support at all is an attack on student learning and the ability to progress in their careers.”

In her written testimony, Akers said lawmakers should consider shifting the way they provide subsidies for students, moving them from tax benefits and loan interest subsidies to “a single, means-tested grant program that delivers the most aid to the least well-off students.” Akers also said during the hearing that loan forgiveness for those in public service is “the wrong place” to give those subsidies, and that a subsidy in the form of something like a tax credit would motivate more people in general to pursue certain professions, rather than just those with student debt.

At the same time, she urged the committee to “reject the growing demand to make college ‘free.’”

“Universality would be justified if there were fundamental barriers to a functioning marketplace for higher education,” she said. “But no market failure exists that isn’t rectifiable through subsidies, provision of credit and appropriate regulation. Embracing universality in postsecondary education would come at tremendous financial cost, but would also rob us of the byproducts of a competitive marketplace—innovation, quality, and adequacy of supply.”

As the hearing wrapped up, Foxx said that throughout the years it has become clear “that none of the issues stand alone” when it comes to college affordability.

“Mr. Chairman, you and I share a love for methodical processes and a topical approach makes sense to many, but as our witnesses have shown us today, each topic leads directly to another,” Foxx said. “This is why this committee must focus on the following touchstones for reform: strengthening innovation and completion, modernizing federal student aid, and promoting student opportunities.”

The committee’s next hearing—for which a date has yet to be announced—will focus on accountability in higher education.


Publication Date: 3/14/2019

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