What’s Next for the Higher Education Act After Another Year Passes Without a Reauthorization?

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As the days left in the legislative calendar shrink and Congress attempts to pass another federal relief package to address the disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus, another year will pass without a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

The HEA first became law in 1965 and was last rewritten in 2008. The last decade was the first without a reauthorization, making the current 12-year gap the longest on record.

With another year passing without a successful attempt to reauthorize the sweeping higher education law, questions remain regarding why it is not a top priority and what the future prospects are for a rewrite, particularly with Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) retiring at the end of the year.

Back in March — before the global pandemic took hold — Alexander signaled optimism for a rewrite of the law taking place this year, telling a group of community college trustees that he hoped to to have a bill to reauthorize the HEA through his committee by the end of the month, according to Inside Higher Ed. Roughly a year before that, he made clear his legislative goals under his chairmanship with an op-ed published in The New York Times. Adding to the sense of optimism was his working relationship with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the Senate education committee.

Now, those hopes have all but evaporated, and the future prospects are unclear.

“The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic simply killed off whatever modest opportunity there was to reauthorize the law,” said Terry Hartle, the senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “I haven’t heard reauthorization mentioned for months.”

While the ongoing pandemic explains why it got pushed to the backburner this year, it doesn’t explain why a rewrite of the HEA has been seemingly bumped down the priority list for years.

Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at NASFAA, attributed the lack of an HEA reauthorization in part to a deep and growing partisanship in Congress.

“I'm not saying that partisanship hasn't always existed,” she said. “But in the last decade in particular it has really gotten to this point where we are growing into a Congress where folks are coming from the very far right, and the very far left, and you see moderates kind of getting pushed out.”

There is considerable disagreement between the two sides regarding spending on aid programs and accountability measures, among other things, but there is also common ground on important issues such as FAFSA simplification and expanding the allowable uses of Pell Grants. The FUTURE Act, which allowed direct data sharing between the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Education (ED), is a recent example of a bipartisan agreement supported by NASFAA and the higher education community.

Coval said the desire to reach across the aisle and attempt to strike bipartisan compromises on major legislation such as the HEA is no longer valued quite the same way it once was. And both Republicans and Democrats have priorities they appear unwilling to budge on.

To that end, Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said Democrats and Republicans are so far apart on their legislative priorities that the apparent compromise is to continue with the status quo.

Furthermore, he said the lack of a clear priority list from the Trump administration regarding higher education has led to a decreased appetite from lawmakers for tackling the HEA.

“The Trump administration early on washed its hands in terms of a legislative agenda,” he said, noting that President Donald Trump would be unlikely to sign any significant expansion of the law that Democrats surely desire.

Without a White House heavily involved in negotiations, it's left to Alexander to strike a deal with Murray, get the rest of the committee on board, pass it through the full Senate, and then hope to reach a compromise with House Democrats.

But any proposal or possible compromise from the House is almost sure to call for an increase in spending, Delisle added.

Adding to the timing and political obstacles is the fact that the HEA is such a massive and complex piece of legislation, Hartle said.

“Reauthorizing pieces of legislation used to be part of the routine business of government. It might be challenging and difficult, but it was part of the routine business of government,” he said. “There's no routine business anymore. It's very difficult in the current political climate to get anything accomplished. And the longer and more complex the legislation, the more costly the bill, the harder it is to fashion enough bipartisan consensus to move forward.”

And while some lawmakers and those in the sector have advocated for a piecemeal approach, Hartle said taking that route will lead to the low-hanging fruit getting accomplished and the more difficult pieces likely never getting addressed.

That approach would be a far cry from addressing the wholesale changes that will be needed for higher education institutions and the next generation of students to recover from the virus’ impact.

“There's a sense that things are so incredibly uncertain right now that it's almost hard to know how to do an HEA bill well right now,” said Michele Streeter, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for College Access and Success. “We almost need to see how the dust settles and what that looks like going forward.”

Notably, the pandemic has brought a different set of higher education issues to the forefront, including ensuring students have protections from sudden school closures and supporting institutions in their transition to online learning, Streeter noted. 

Both Delisle and Hartle said the major sticking points include the cost of the programs in the HEA, the subsidies available to student loan borrowers, and accountability measures, though there have been areas of agreement as well, notably a desire to simplify the FAFSA and allow the use of Pell Grants for short-term programs.

Additionally, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ new Title IX rule issued in May could pose another hurdle, as Murray has vocally opposed the rule.

Moving forward, the upcoming election will undoubtedly have a major impact on what is included in the next HEA rewrite. Should Democratic nominee Joe Biden win, Delisle said, Murray would be more inclined to push to include increases in financial aid funding, but she will lose the working relationship she has had with Alexander at the end of the year.

Biden has stated his higher education goals include student debt relief, expanding if not doubling the Pell Grant, and making two-year programs and community colleges tuition-free. Hartle said some of those items could get accomplished in a budget reconciliation bill since it allows for a quicker process, or some of those priorities could make their way into an HEA rewrite.

In a lameduck session after the November election, Alexander could be motivated to get some items through in a piecemeal approach, though a comprehensive HEA rewrite would be too much of an undertaking in such a short period of time, Coval noted.

“Some activity could maybe happen then,” she said. “I think it would be unrealistic that we would see a comprehensive HEA bill go through. But piecemealing something together is not out of the question.”

Regardless of when the next HEA reauthorization takes place, the higher education community has been working on it for years, Coval said, noting that NASFAA first convened a task force on reauthorization back in 2012 — a year before reauthorization should have taken place. An updated report was released in July 2016 to include subsequent work from NASFAA policy task forces. In August 2019, NASFAA’s HEA Reauthorization Refresh Working Group released updated recommendations, which were incorporated into NASFAA’s most current HEA reauthorization recommendations.

Others NASFAA spoke with for this piece cautiously estimated an HEA revamp could get through by next December, giving the newly elected Congress time to get acclimated and set their priorities for the package before accounting for time for negotiations to take place. 

Hartle, however, lamented that as the years pass since the last HEA reauthorization, the legislation only becomes more outdated.

“It increasingly does not reflect the post secondary universe that we are living in,” he said.


Publication Date: 8/26/2020

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