Despite the fact that it’s only October and there are still a couple of months left in the 115th Congress, it’s now clear that reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will continue to be delayed. Having been passed out of committee on a party-line vote last December, the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act – a partisan reauthorization bill written by Republican leadership of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce – remains unlikely to be brought up for a full vote on the House floor. Similarly, several hearings and statements by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee leadership from both parties asserted that HEA reauthorization would be a priority in 2018, but for talks around a bipartisan bill collapsed in the late spring and early summer of 2018.
The continued delay is unfortunate as there are much-needed updates to our nation’s signature higher education law, but it does provide the opportunity for a fresh start in both the House and Senate and the prospect of a more bi-partisan process for legislation in the 116th Congress. This post will discuss what the future of HEA might be in the 116th Congress as well as identify policy proposals NASPA will be working to promote with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to improve outcomes for students and student affairs professionals under the next reauthorization.
If predictions about the outcome of the House and Senate midterm elections are accurate, the 116th Congress would be split along party lines with the House controlled by Democrats and the Senate controlled by Republicans. In today’s increasingly polarized political environment, many might think that would lead to intractable disagreement and continued Congressional inaction. Understanding how the parties and the chambers work, separately and together, to pass legislation, however, offers a glimmer of hope, especially for the future of HEA. Specifically, the requirement that both chambers of Congress must pass the same legislation before it can be considered for signature by the President provides incentive for the parties to work together when they hold majority control of one or the other chamber.
The Senate has traditionally been the more bipartisan of the two chambers, in large part because of the rules of the chamber and the need for 60 votes to pass many pieces of legislation. It has been 40 years since one party controlled a super-majority in the Senate that would allow them to pass legislation without votes from the opposing party, so Senators tend to work in a more bipartisan manner more readily than their House counterparts. The House, which requires only a simple majority to pass legislation, tends to be more fractious because it’s common for one party to be able to pass legislation without requiring any votes from members of the opposing party. However, anything that passes the House must also pass the more bipartisan Senate, so if Democrats take control of the House for the 116th Congress, they will still need to craft legislation that will secure Republican votes in the Senate, and that President Trump will sign. Therefore, a more bipartisan process in the House, even when bipartisanship may not be strictly necessary to garner a simple majority of votes to pass legislation, increases the overall odds that legislation will be passed and signed into law.
NASPA’s overarching priorities for HEA Reauthorization are focused largely on ensuring financial support for students to access and complete their credentials, including on providing holistic support to ensure student health and wellness, campus safety, and appropriate regulations to ensure program quality and integrity. Policymakers from both parties generally also agree with these overarching priorities, though they differ in where they place the emphasis for why and how best to accomplish them. Republicans tend to support investments in education for the resulting benefits to employers and the economy, and Democrats have given attention to addressing individuals’ and families’ economic stability with a focus on closing equity gaps. These differences become apparent in the details, which matter in any legislation, but with legislation as broad and far-reaching as HEA, there are a lot of details. Using the PROSPER Act and the House Democrats’ Aim Higher Act as far-outside guideposts, and tempering them with the past two years’ appropriations bills, it’s possible to identify at least a couple areas of policy priorities that have good odds to be included in a bipartisan HEA reauthorization bill in the 116th Congress.
Continued support for low-income students, including the maintenance of grant programs to improve college-preparation and access for historically under-represented students. While the PROSPER Act took steps to simplify student aid programs by eliminating existing programs – such as the in-school student loan interest subsidies, the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program – the Aim Higher Act preserves and bolsters support for low-income students within existing programs. The past two years of appropriations bills passed by Congress and signed by President Trump have similarly signaled broad bipartisan support for student aid, maintaining or increasing the maximum Pell Grant award, allocating funds to aid PSLF applicants who were misled about eligible repayment programs, and generously supporting TRIO programs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs). It is reasonable to expect that efforts to simplify grant and loan programs for students may result in changes to specific programs, and for the shifting of funds to benefit some students while reducing funds for others. However, the prevailing atmosphere for a bipartisan HEA reauthorization bill is likely to be one of continued financial support for low-income and historically under-represented students.
Focus on deregulation and simplification. Negotiation between the parties around Republican desires to limit the federal role in higher education and Democrat desires to fund college for all could focus on programs targeted to smaller populations. For example, while college access and credential attainment is undoubtedly important in preventing recidivism among formerly incarcerated individuals, the Second-chance Pell program may be vulnerable. Republicans generally support the roll-back in regulations Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is spearheading, making it likely that they will seek to codify changes to the borrower defense to repayment and gainful employment regulations in legislation. NASPA believes that these programs provide important safeguards to students and taxpayers, however, and looks forward to working with policymakers to identify revisions and improvements to our national education data system to allow appropriate accountability without adding burden to institutions.
Updates to the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act regulations in response to the opioid epidemic. As Congressional attention has focused on the ravages of the opioid epidemic in communities across the country, it is likely that language in HEA relating to institutional programs related to substance use may be modified. The Aim Higher Act included language that would require use of evidence-based or evidence-informed programs for alcohol and drug prevention programs, including the creation of a cooperative agreement between the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to determine what counts as an evidence-based program and compliance assistance language. While the exact nature of possible language in HEA is open for debate, both Republicans and Democrats may work to update these aspects of the bill.
Ultimately, only time will tell which policy proposals and priorities will emerge from the Congressional educational committees. NASPA will continue to represent the voices of student affairs professionals in policy conversations in Washington, D.C. along with other higher education associations as the 116th Congress begins their work in January.
Image credit: This image is a work of an employee of the Architect of the Capitol, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, all images created or made by the Architect of the Capitol are in the public domain in the United States, with the exception of classified information. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_of_Columbia_home_rule#/media/File:United_States_Capitol_-_west_front.jpg