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Fall 2019 Proposals to Reauthorize the Higher Education Act

Student Success Civic Engagement Policy and Advocacy Supporting the Profession Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Public Policy Division
October 29, 2019 Teri Lyn Hinds Director of Policy Research & Advocacy

The Higher Education Act governs federal support for students and institutions. NASPA’s priorities for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act focus on protecting, preserving, and perhaps most importantly modernizing our federal student and institutional aid programs for today’s non-traditional students. 

In partnership with other members of the steering committee, NASPA supports the Today’s Student Coalition to advance policies that reflect the needs of today’s increasingly diverse students, including challenges with securing SNAP benefits or navigating the FAFSA. NASPA also supports updating key provisions relating to campus prevention programmings, such as those included in the Campus Prevention and Recovery Services for Students Act of 2019.

Recent partisan legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress aimed at HEA reauthorization. While neither of the bills seems likely to progress, both deserve attention as indicators for how members of Congress are directing their attention on issues of higher education.

The Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019

To move forward HEA related legislation that has bipartisan support before his announced retirement in 2020, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced a small package of bills in late September 2019 under the title "Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019" (SAIA). The bills included in SAIA were all variations of legislation that had been previously proposed and had bipartisan support, though in re-working them, many of the provisions that were favored by Democrats have been removed or altered. These revisions, combined with Senator Murray's opposition to moving any legislation that is not a comprehensive reauthorization of HEA, make it unlikely the SAIA will advance.

The proposals included in the SAIA would accomplish one of Senator Alexander’s signature goals: streamlining and simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), along with the creation of a new Student Aid Index formula that would allow for the calculation of negative adjusted available index amount for low-income families. The bill would also require the Department of Education to work with other federal agencies, higher education representatives, and consumers to develop standard terminology and format for student aid offer letters. Several extensions of the Pell program are also included in the bill, expanding Pell eligibility for students in short-term programs, a variant of the JOBS Act of 2019 introduced by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), and allowing incarcerated individuals to receive Pell Grants. Unfortunately, Senator Alexander removed provisions of the bipartisan JOBS Act that would provide necessary safeguards to protect students and taxpayers. Permanent authorization for Title III mandatory appropriations were also included in the SAIA. The bill is cost-neutral, with provisions paid for by removing the cap on income-based repayment plans and requiring all borrowers to pay 10% of their discretionary income. This change was previously supported by the Obama administration and affects high-income individuals with large amounts of debt.

College Affordability Act

On the House side, Chair of the Education and Labor Committee, Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), introduced a partisan comprehensive reauthorization bill in mid-October, the College Affordability Act (CAA). The College Affordability Act contains many provisions that align with NASPA’s priorities, but also comes with an initial estimated $400 billion cost over 10 years and does not include an offset in the bill to cover the cost. The bill is not expected to move beyond a Committee mark-up in late October. Ranking member on the Ed and Labor Committee, Representative Virginia Foxx, may also release a partisan HEA bill, possibly in line with the PROSPER Act, later in the fall.

 

Many associations and groups, including the Center for American Progress, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), and the American Council on Education (ACE), have written on the CAA, covering a number of the bill’s highlights. NASPA staff have outlined those most relevant to student affairs below.

 

Pell Grant Program. The bill increases the maximum Pell Grant award by $500 and also indexes the Pell Grant to the Consumer Price Index, an effort to prevent the continued erosion of the purchasing power of the grant program. Eligibility for Pell Grants is also extended to 14 semesters, over the current 12, and students who use Pell funds as an undergraduate would also be allowed to access the program for graduate and professional studies, a move some have questioned

 

Simplification of Financial Aid, Especially for Low-income Families. Like Senator Alexander’s SAIA, CAA also takes steps to simplify the financial aid application and loan repayment processes. Recipients of means-tested federal benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), would automatically be determined to have no expected family contribution, a process often referred to as “auto-0 EFC”. Applicants would also be tracked into a limited number of questions based on a determination of their family asset complexity. The CAA reduces the number of repayment plans down to two, a standard repayment plan similar to the existing 10-year repayment plan, and an income-based repayment plan that allows for more generous repayment terms for borrowers who earn less than 250% of the federal poverty limit, currently around $31,225/year. For borrowers in the income-based repayment plan, the income monitoring process would be automated to eliminate the need for annual recertification. Under a similar process, monitoring for eligibility for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program would also be automated and the program is expanded and adjusted in light of recent eligibility complications that have resulted in many who thought they were on-track for forgiveness to be denied.

Accountability. The bill would close the 90/10 loophole, a move supported by several student veteran groups, by requiring institutions to earn no more than 85% of their revenue from federal sources and adding veterans' educational benefits to the calculation of revenue from federal sources. The bill also restores borrower defense to repayment and gainful employment requirements, both Obama-era consumer protections designed to protect students from unscrupulous actors. 

Federal-State Partnership & Free College. In keeping with proposals from the Democratic Presidential candidates, the bill also takes steps toward the creation of a federal-state partnership, America’s College Promise, that would provide additional federal grant funding to states who agree to waive community college tuition and fees on a first-dollar basis, while also maintaining investments in public four-year institutions and state aid programs.

The bill also addresses several priorities NASPA has been closely monitoring and which align with our priorities for meeting the needs of today’s students. For the first time, undocumented immigrants who entered the United States when they were younger than 16 who earn a high school diploma or serve in the US armed forces will be eligible to receive federal student aid. Authorization for the Childcare Access Means Parents in Schools (CCAMPIS) program is quadrupled and longstanding, successful grantees are eligible for bonuses if allocations to the program exceed $140 million in a given year. The bill incorporates language from the REACH Act to define hazing and add it to the list of crimes institutions are required to report in annual Clery statistics. Secretary DeVos’s proposed Title IX rule, or any rule substantially like it, would be prohibited from being implemented, but there is no additional language included that would clarify or provide guidance about campus responsibilities under Title IX. 

As noted, neither the SAIA or the CAA are expected to progress to votes in either chamber. Nonetheless, the number of provisions in both bills that would benefit students and institutions is notable.HEA remains our nation’s largest and most comprehensive piece of legislation governing our federal investment in higher education. In keeping with the civic engagement and advocacy tenets of NASPA’s strategic plan and policy agenda, we encourage members to review the legislation and reach out to their officials to offer support or suggestions for improvement for either bill.