Congress is well into the process of passing a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), and many members of Congress have introduced bills addressing many aspects of higher education that concern the public. 

The next Congress will see significant changes that will affect HEA reauthorization. Not least, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), and Representative George Miller (D-CA), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, are retiring. There is also the potential for a change of political control of the Senate.

Yet there is some hope that, in this realm, Congress may not be immobilized. A review of the proposals already on the table suggests that Democrats and Republicans are thinking in similar ways about a number of areas. As a result, there is great potential for agreement in the next Congress on some issues - particularly when it comes to innovating to address the soaring cost of higher education and simplifying the way students access financial aid.

Despite this potential agreement, these high-profile retirements and anticipated leadership changes – including the elevation of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) to leadership posts in the Senate and House respectively (taking over for Senator Harkin and Representative Miller), and the potential elevation of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to HELP Committee Chairman – may mean that during the next year, Congress will focus on development and then fine-tuning of various higher education proposals. 

While it is possible that a Republican-controlled Congress could use the budget reconciliation process to advance a limited number of higher education policy goals early in the next Congress, we do not expect a full reauthorization bill to pass Congress until 2016.

  1. THE HIGHER EDUCATION ACT BILLS NOW BEFORE CONGRESS
  1. MAJOR BILLS
  1. Higher Education Affordability Act

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a discussion draft proposal in June titled the Higher Education Affordability Act. The bill has yet to be finalized and formally introduced to committee.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to counteract the rising costs of college education. The proposal focuses on improving college affordability, helping struggling borrowers, strengthening accountability and improving transparency. Among its key points: it would reinstate year-round Pell Grants, and it explores risk sharing for low-performing schools, holding them financially accountable.

  1. Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act – H.R. 4982

Representative Larry Buschon (R-IN) introduced the Application for Student Aid Act in June.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to streamline the application process by using income tax data to pre-fill sections of the FAFSA form, as well as allow students to use older family financial data (information as much as two years old) to fill out the application earlier.

  1. Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act – H.R. 4983

Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) introduced the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act to the House in June.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to streamline higher education information disclosures that students use to evaluate their college options, and make that information easily accessible to students via a College Dashboard website.

  1. Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act – H.R. 4984

Representative Brett Guthrie (R-KY) introduced the Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act to the House in June.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to provide students with information and counseling on financial borrowing and grants. Among other things, it would ensure yearly interactive counseling for borrowers.

  1. Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act – H.R. 3136

Representative Matt Salmon (R-AZ) introduced the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act to the House in September 2013. The bill passed the House on July 23, 2014. Govtrack.us predicts that the bill has a 42% chance of being enacted at this stage – much higher odds than most of these measures.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to create a competency-based education initiative by which students could finish classes through so-called education demonstration projects rather than achieving a certain number of credit hours.

  1. Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act – N/A

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announcedthe Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act in June . The bill has yet to be finalized and formally introduced to committee.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to improve access for students to federal grants and loans by eliminating the 10-page FAFSA application (reducing it to only two questions: what is your family size, and what was your household income two years prior?), streamlining federal grants and loans into two programs and reinstating the year-round Pell Grant. It also would require the Secretary of Education to provide information about financial aid eligibility to middle and secondary schools where at least 25 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced cost lunches.

  1. OTHER IMPORTANT BILLS
  1. Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act – H.R. 4612 / S. 1904

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act of 2013to the Senate in January 2014. Representative Ron DeSantis (R-FL) introduced a related bill to the House on May 8, 2014.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to allow states’ accreditation authorities to make alternative accreditation agreements with the Secretary of Education. Through these agreements, post-secondary educational institutions accredited in this fashion would be eligible for funding under Title IV.

  1. Keep Student Loans Affordable Act – H.R. 2574 / S. 1238

Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) introduced the Keep Student Loans Affordable Act of 2013 to the Senate on June 27, 2013, and Representative George Miller (D-CA) introduced an identical bill to the House on June 28, 2013.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to extend the 3.4 percent interest rate on Direct Stafford loans for an additional year.

  1. Transferring Credits for College Completion Act – H.R. 4348

Representative George Miller (D-CA) introduced the Transferring Credits for College Completion Act to the House of Representatives in April.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to include information and statistics about student transfers on the College Navigator website. Such statistics would include completion time for degrees and which schools have articulation agreements with other schools. It would also require public institutions of higher learning to enter articulation agreements with the other schools in its state and create a 30-credit hour common general education core curriculum that is fully transferrable.

  1. CAMPUS Debit Cards Act – H.R. 4714

Representative George Miller (D-CA) introduced the Curbing Abusive Marketing Practices with University Student (CAMPUS) Debit Cards Act to the House of Representatives in May. This bill is related to S.2385 (Protecting Aid for Students Act).

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to require institutions of higher learning with preferred banking arrangements with a financial institution to develop a code of conduct. At minimum, this code of conduct would eliminate conflicts of interest, revenue-sharing, solicitation of gifts or compensation and undue favoritism. The bill would also prohibit the institution from influencing a student’s choice of financial institution or delaying disbursement of credit balances based upon the student’s choice.

  1. CREATE Graduates Act – S. 2506

Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) introduced the Correctly Recognizing Educational Achievements to Empower (CREATE) Graduates Act to the Senate in June.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to competitively award grants to states that locate and award degrees to former students in the workforce who have enough accumulated credits for an associate’s degree but never received one. States should also provide outreach to students within 12 credits of obtaining an associate’s degree, and implement procedures to help students receive information about degree audits and graduation requirements.

  1. Student Right to Know Before You Go Act – S. 915 / H.R. 1937

Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act to both houses of Congress in May 2013. 

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to update reporting requirements for institutions of higher education and provide for more accurate and complete data on student retention, graduation and earnings outcomes at all levels of postsecondary enrollment.

  1. Creating Higher Education Affordability Necessary to Compete Economically Act– S.2374 / H.R. 4902

On May 21, 2014, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) introduced the Creating Higher Education Affordability Necessary to Compete Economically Act to the Senate in May, and Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) introduced an identical bill to the House on in June.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act to increase the maximum Pell Grant funding during the 2014-2015 award year, as well as raise the period in which students may receive Pell Grant funding from 12 semesters to 15 semesters.

  1. EXPANDING OPPORTUNITY IN AMERICA – DISCUSSION DRAFT

This discussion draft from the House Budget Committee, released in July by its chair, Paul Ryan (R-WI), observes that “[i]nstead of directing aid to the neediest families, the federal government now gives aid to families up and down the income scale, chasing ever-higher tuition with ever-larger subsidies.” To reverse this trend, this draft proposes seven targets for higher education reform, incorporating favored aspects from some bills active in Congress at the moment.

  1. Simplify the FAFSA – This proposal suggests streamlining the FAFSA and providing students with information about federal aid eligibility as early as eighth grade. It would also adopt the provisions of the Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act (H.R. 4982).
  2. Reform and modernize the Pell program – This proposal would redirect funding to Pell from the SEOG program to shore up its deficiencies. It would also adopt the six-year flex fund approach to the Pell Grant and impose reporting requirements on school completion rates of Pell Grant recipients.
  3. Cap federal loans to graduate students and parent – This proposal would forego student loan forgiveness and instead impose a cap on graduate and parental loans. The exact cap has not been determined in the proposal. The proposal seeks to consolidate and simplify repayment options and financing programs.
  4. Consider reforms to the TRIO programs – The proposal suggests incorporating the TRIO programs into a single grant program. It also welcomes suggestions on improvements.
  5. Expand funding for federal work-study programs – This proposal, anticipating the expiration of the Perkins Loan Program, would allow institutions to keep Perkins funding in the form of increased federal work-study funding.
  6. Build stronger partnerships with post-secondary institutions – This proposal suggests a joint effort by institutions and the government to make colleges more affordable and encourage outcome-based learning.
  7. Reform the accreditation process – This proposal would make it easier for new accreditors to gain recognition, encourage accreditors to expand their boards to employers and workers and expand the Pay for Success proposal to include industry-recognized certificates for non-accredited providers of two-year degrees. The proposal would also adopt the provisions of the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act of 2013 (HERO Act; S.1904), developing alternative accreditation arrangements.

John A. Miller