Higher Ed Affordability and Opportunities for Short-Term Pell Take Center Stage in House Education Panel Hearing

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Managing Editor

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Wednesday held its first hearing of the new session, which included an extensive conversation on how Congress can work to improve access, accountability, and affordability within the higher education system.

Throughout the hearing Republicans and Democrats agreed that higher education is faced with a number of crises, but broadly differed on the needed solutions to address issues surrounding affordability. Yet there were some glimmers of hope for bipartisan work to begin in earnest, especially for potential legislation that would enable the usage of short-term Pell Grants.

The hearing encompassed the entirety of the education system, with topics and questions diving into issues in primary and secondary schooling as well as higher education.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the committee, used her testimony to argue that postsecondary programs are not being held accountable, with unaffordable pricing that has led to poor student outcomes.

Foxx said the education system is “deeply troubling at every level,” but specifically took issue with the Biden administration’s efforts to overhaul the student loan system through its debt cancellation program and proposed changes to the repayment system.

“Republicans will not stand by while the Biden administration attempts to enact its retroactive free-college agenda,” Foxx said. “As the institution that holds the power of the purse, we have a responsibility to protect the interest of taxpayers and ensure that students are receiving a high-quality education that enables them to repay their loans and be career ready.”

House Republicans have in recent months unveiled a number of higher education-centric bills like the Promoting Employment and Lifelong Learning (PELL) Act, the College Cost Transparency and Student Protection Act, as well as the Responsible Education Assistance Through Loan (REAL) Reforms Act, which Foxx hinted could come up in future committee meetings.

“Republicans plan to pass common sense legislation that fixes the inherent problems in our federal student loan and accountability systems to protect both borrowers and taxpayers,” Foxx said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to advance bold postsecondary education solutions.”

Rep Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the committee’s ranking member, largely agreed on the affordability crisis for students pursuing higher education, but also used his remarks to detail how the American Rescue Plan (ARP) provided a lifeline and resources to students to make up for disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Scott also said it was going to be Democrats' agenda to promote legislation that would help students, in all stages of their education, meet their potential. In his remarks Scott took issue with Republicans looking to stall federal relief and assistance that the Biden administration is attempting to provide to students.

“Republican attorneys general are suing to prevent over 40 million eligible student loan borrowers from accessing student loan relief while congressional Republicans are simultaneously introducing legislation that would make severe cuts to programs that help students afford a college degree,” Scott said.

In terms of legislative priorities, Scott also discussed the Lowering Obstacles to Achievement Now Act, the LOAN Act, the proposal House Democrats have put forward with the aim of improving postsecondary access and affordability.

While Foxx and Scott differed on their overarching priorities, they did begin to show a shared interest in legislating some sort of expansion to short-term Pell Grants and hinted that other members were interested in shaping such legislation.

During member questioning, Scott pressed witnesses for specifics on how Congress should legislate to ensure that programs are not taking advantage of the funding.

He also reminded witnesses that House Democrats voted to approve an amendment that would establish new Pell Grant eligibility for short-term training programs and that there was an interest in tackling the issue.

Still, Scott expressed concern as to how lawmakers should go about crafting a bill that would prevent storefront operations from dealing out worthless credentials in order to collect Pell Grants.

“The question is, if you open [Pell Grants] up to everybody you're going to be wasting a lot of money unless you have a screen that only appropriate vendors can get access to it,” Scott said. “We’ve got to write legislative language that separates the good from the bad.”


Publication Date: 2/9/2023

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