Recently, the House Education and Workforce Committee (E&W) and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee released proposals to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). The E&W committee released a white paper with high level principles whereas the HELP Committee released a longer, more detailed “discussion draft.”

As expected the two committees offer similar objectives for students and families, but the competing plans differ significantly on how to achieve these goals, mainly reflecting partisan differences about the role of the federal government in higher education. The E&W Committee has introduced, and will consider this month, three noncontroversial bills dealing with competency based education, simplifying loan counseling, and making more understandable information from the Department of Education.  The HELP Committee plans to take comments on its discussion draft through August 29th with a target of introducing language in the early Fall.

Starkly different starting points and the condensed legislative calendar makes passage of comprehensive HEA reauthorization this year unlikely.  The prospects for HEA re- authorization are further clouded by the upcoming mid-term elections. The more likely scenario is that the House will pass a series of smaller, perhaps less controversial bills and that later this year the Senate takes up, at least at the Committee level, a larger piece of legislation.  Nonetheless, the dueling proposals are worth watching carefully as elements of each (such as the expanded pilot for competency-based education) may ultimately become law.

Senate Democrats Proposal

Key provisions of the HELP Committee HEA Reauthorization Proposal:

  • Changes the 90-10 rule for for-profit schools to 85-15 and shifts military benefits to the 85% side of the equation;
  • Defines “financial products” broadly to include stored valued cards, prohibits use of Title IV funds for financial products unless an institution has established a code of conduct; prohibits revenue sharing for affiliated financial products;
  • Prohibits an institution’s use of revenue from “Federal educational assistance funds [such as title IV loans and grants] for recruiting or marketing activities.”
  • Creates a student complaint tracking system at the Department of Education and complaint tracking office within the Department;
  • Creates a proprietary school oversight committee Chaired by the Secretary of Education or his designee, to “coordinate Federal oversight of proprietary institutions of higher education; coordinate Federal activities to protect students from unfair, deceptive, abusive, unethical, fraudulent, or predatory practices, policies, or procedures of proprietary institutions of higher education.”
  • Reinstates “Ability to Benefit” to provide postsecondary access for students without a high school certificate of graduation, GED or recognized equivalent.
  • Directs the Secretary to carry out a competency-based education demonstration program with an initial 15 demonstration programs selected by the Secretary.
  •  Expands the existing ban on incentive compensation.
  • Adds new civil penalties for substantial misrepresentation of key institutional attributes and performance factors.
  • Requires public disclosure, via a website to be created by the Department of Education, of accreditation documents related to academic and institutional quality.
  • Simplifies income-based repayment plans.

House Republican Principles

Key elements under the E&W Committee principles:

  • Transparency must be increased; however, the proposed college ratings system “will unfairly judge our nation’s diverse colleges and universities, restrict consumer choice, confuse families, and limit postsecondary options for low- and middle- income students.”
  • The federal government should help control costs by removing unnecessary and burdensome requirements and regulations, including the proposed rules respecting Gainful Employment.
  • Laws and federal regulations should not deny students’ access to online education.
  • To ensure access to online education, the Department should create a competency- based education demonstration project that will allow it to waive statutory and regulatory impediments to competency-based education.
  • Strengthen accreditation by protecting the existing balance of responsibility among accreditors, states and the Department of Education, while also ensuring the accreditation process is rigorous, transparent, and open to new ideas for delivering a postsecondary education.