Congressional Panel Discusses Future of Higher Education Policies Post COVID-19

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

The House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment on Wednesday held a hearing to discuss how Congress should focus on higher education investments in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who recently became chairwoman of the subcommittee, convened the hearing as a way to start a discussion on what investments the higher education sector will need following the implementation of the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act.

The discussion focused on congressional efforts to expand access and quality higher education for students, what measures could be taken to ensure federal oversight of institutional aid in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, how previous aid packages have assisted students, and concern over the size of federal aid being applied to higher education.

Keith Thornton, Jr., a student at Florida International University, offered the committee perspective on how federal rescue packages, dating back to the original Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, helped him stay on track to graduate. 

“I had to pull a lot of funds from my savings and it put me in a position where I wasn’t able to provide [for] myself in terms of rent, bills, or even things concerning school,” Thornton said. “The CARES Act literally came just in time and I was able to use that to not only take care of myself as far as where I was staying, [but also] take care of myself as far as school is concerned.”

Thornton also said that many students would benefit from doubling the Pell Grant, a policy that NASFAA has also urged Congress to consider.

Wilson said that in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, Congress should look to strengthen on the federal level institutional oversight of predatory schools, promote policies to lower the cost of college, aim to incentivize states to invest in higher education, and promote policies that would expand the Pell Grant program.

Rep. Gregory Murphy (R-N.C.), ranking member of the subcommittee, stressed the importance of congressional oversight of aid that has already been administered through emergency packages. 

“With these unprecedented levels of taxpayer money being funneled into educational institutions, combined with valid concerns about return on investment, it is imperative that Congress take a close look at how the Department of Education and institutions of higher learning spent hard-earned taxpayer dollars, and consider necessary structural reforms to the Higher Education Act to serve students better,” Murphy said.

Murphy also expressed his displeasure with congressional Democrats enacting the most recent coronavirus aid without any support from Republicans and cited “administrative bloat” as a growing concern for rising costs in the higher education sector.

“Higher education is in a state of emergency, but we cannot allow this to turn into an excuse to nationalize the entire postsecondary education sector,” Murphy said. “Now, if we are going to be involved in education, we ought to expect a civic, financial, and productive return on our investment.”

Murphy also said that Congress should not be looking to administer student loan forgiveness or loan cancelation because those costs will burden taxpayers, but expressed an openness to working on “reforming interest rates” on federally-held student loans as a potential bipartisan policy solution.

Committee Republicans focused many of their questions on the amount of aid that has already been allocated and ensuring that oversight doesn’t just punish the for-profit sector, citing low graduation rates from public brick-and-mortar four-year public institutions. 

They also directed questions to Dr. Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, over concerns with whether federal funding is encouraging higher non-tuition costs for students, and asked what Congress could do to reduce those costs.

Burke urged members to look at eliminating the PLUS Loan program and allow colleges to limit the amount of money a student could borrow on a programmatic basis.

Committee Democrats also highlighted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, implored Congress to codify in law.


Publication Date: 3/18/2021

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