Following three days of debate, the House education committee voted along party lines Thursday morning to move the College Affordability Act (CAA), House Democrats’ Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization bill to the floor for a full vote.
While the bill received support from the higher education community for improvements to student financial aid programs, including NASFAA, many higher education stakeholders were concerned with non-student aid proposals included in the bill, such as those focused on accreditation and increased reporting requirements. NASFAA was also concerned about certain provisions within the bill, including plans to expand the jurisdiction of the Department of Education (ED) by allowing it to regulate how institutions estimate a portion of students’ cost of attendance (COA).
“While NASFAA supports an overwhelming majority of the bill’s provisions, we call on the committee to rethink some proposals that could hinder financial aid office operations and discretion as they work to serve students,” NASFAA wrote in a letter to the House Committee on Education and Labor ahead of the start of the markup on Tuesday.
The Senate has not released a comprehensive reauthorization bill, but Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, introduced a narrow reauthorization bill in late September that focused largely on simplifying the FAFSA. After receiving stiff opposition from Senate Democrats — led by ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — who have said they will only support a comprehensive bill, Alexander then released an even “skinnier” bill that solely focused on FAFSA simplification, which garnered the support of NASFAA, the National College Access Network (NCAN), and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO).
During the markup session that spanned Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, House committee members introduced almost 60 amendments, with a majority coming from Republicans. However, Democratic members voted down almost all Republicans amendments.
Committee chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said in his opening remarks that while lawmakers could not come to agreement on a bipartisan bill, the CAA includes more than 30 bipartisan proposals, and that both sides of the aisle met several times to inform the bill text.
In her opening remarks, however, ranking member Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) called the title of the bill “misleading,” adding that the bill increases federal spending and “will contribute to the skyrocketing cost of postsecondary education,” a concern echoed by some higher education organizations. Foxx argued that the CAA “gives tens of billions of dollars to colleges instead of investing directly in students,” while ignoring the growing skills gap.
“The skills gap in this country must be addressed if we hope to cultivate a qualified workforce for the future. But by furthering the harmful rhetoric that everyone needs a baccalaureate degree to achieve lifelong success, Democrats are completely ignoring that not all good jobs require degrees. The policies at the heart of this legislation will widen our nation’s skills gap and harm America’s economy,” Foxx said.
Throughout the markup, Democrats argued that the CAA reduces college costs, fixes financial aid programs — such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) — and targets institutional quality by holding predatory institutions accountable. Republicans, however, argued that the bill, through expanding the role of federal government in higher education, threatens academic freedom for institutions and school choice for students.
Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) introduced an amendment to replace the entirety of the bill’s text, which was approved. Last minute substitute bills from the majority that contain several adjustments and technical changes are not uncommon during bill mark-ups. All subsequent amendments made changes to the substitute bill. Davis’ bill makes a number of tweaks to the CAA, including increasing funds for the maximum Pell Grant award by $625 (instead of $500) to $6,820 for award year 2020-21, and allowing graduate and professional students at public and nonprofit institutions access to subsidized federal student loans. It also removes a proposal to reinstate the six-year statute of limitations to collect on defaulted federal student loans, and includes a new cap on collection fees for students.
Republicans tried to derail the markup by offering their own substitute bill to replace the CAA — dubbed “the HOPE Act” by Foxx — that included similar policies to their HEA reauthorization bill introduced during the last congressional session, though it was voted down by Democrats.
Accepted amendments affecting student aid included: an amendment from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to create a commission to study the effect of student loan debt cancellation; an amendment from Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) to expand grant funding for campus child care; an amendment from Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) to create a national net price calculator to be housed on ED’s website; an amendment from Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) to protect student veterans by changing the “90/10” rule affecting for-profit institutions to “85/15”; an amendment by Shalala to direct the Comptroller General to conduct a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on the effects of suspending professional and drivers licenses due to student loan defaults; and an amendment from Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) to increase transparency by requiring institutions to disclose expenditures outside of instruction when spending increases more than 5% year-over-year.
Notably, Democrats struck down an amendment from Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) to include elements of the Financial Aid Communication and Transparency (FACT) Act, a bipartisan bill he introduced last month alongside Trahan to improve institutions’ aid offers, which NASFAA supported. The CAA already includes language similar to the FACT Act; however, the HEA bill’s proposal for structuring institutions' aid offers differs in that it would allow for up to eight items to be included in a standard quick reference box, while the FACT Act requires the box to include only cost of attendance, grants/scholarships, and net price, and allows for consumer testing to determine additional items. The CAA also differs in that it includes language that students should take out federal loans before exploring private loans.
Democrats also rejected an amendment from Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) to allow individual institutions to restrict the amount of loans they give to students, or set their own loan limits. While NASFAA has not seen the language of this amendment, it has supported the concept of granting financial aid offices the authority to limit loans for specific populations, academic programs, credential levels, or other categories established by the school, such as enrollment status.
Some other rejected amendments related to federal student aid included an amendment from Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) to eliminate the gainful employment rule that the CAA reinstates; an amendment from Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) to exclude 529 college savings accounts from counting against students when applying for federal financial aid; an amendment from Rep. Daniel Meuser (R-Pa.) to strike the reestablishment of a data-sharing partnership between ED and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB); and an amendment from Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa.) to eliminate the “85/15” rule.
In the end, the committee voted 28-22 to recommend the bill to the House floor for a full vote.
NASFAA’s policy team is working to analyze the amendments to the CAA and revised HEA reauthorization bill. You can find NASFAA’s coverage of the CAA here.
Publication Date: 10/31/2019