This week, there has been much commentary surrounding how the November mid-term elections will impact higher education. Although more details on state and federal policy will follow in the upcoming year, here are some key happenings and issues.
Higher Education and the U.S. Congress
A new Republican majority in the United States Senate will mean a change in leadership of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee with a broad background in education, is expected to chair the committee. Representative John Kline, R-MN, is expected to continue chairing the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Senator Alexander has leveraged a call to ‘Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.’ as a theme for his higher education policy priorities. Although it is unclear how simplification will translate to a full HEA reauthorization bill, Senator Alexander has introduced legislation that would reduce the number of questions on the FAFSA to two (student household size and family income). Opponents question the feasibility of the proposal and argue that the legislation does not yield adequate information to make institutional aid determinations. Alexander has also prioritized deregulation of higher education, but a comprehensive and targeted list of focus areas has not yet been made available. In 2013, Senate HELP Committee members announced the creation of the Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education. The Task Force’s recommendations are expected early next year.
Other key legislative efforts related to HEA reauthorization will likely include, but not be limited to, easing the burden of federal student loan repayment for borrowers, incentivizing institutions to explore innovation with competency-based education programs, and making adjustments to the Pell Grant Program. Given the new Republican House and Senate majorities, however, policy proposals that are tied to a spending increase are likely to face strong opposition. In fact, Representative Paul Ryan’s, R-WI, FY 2015 budget proposal contains significant cuts to the Pell Grant Program. It is worth noting, too, that many pieces of higher education legislation, including HEA reauthorization, are expected to take a back seat to policy proposals related to immigration reform, federal budget deficit reduction and budget passage, reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, and possibly others. As such, Congress will most likely delay HEA reauthorization until later next year.
Higher Education and the Obama Administration
The Administration’s effort to regulate vocational programs through the U.S. Department of Education’s recently released Gainful Employment Rule will face a battle by Republicans in both chambers of the 114th Congress. The new rule bases a vocational program’s eligibility to receive Title IV aid on debt-to-earnings ratios of graduates. To pass scrutiny under the rule, the annual loan payments of graduates must be less than 8% of total earnings or be less than 20% of discretionary earnings. Secretary Duncan has articulated that an estimated 1,400 vocational programs that enroll 840,000 students would fail to meet the standard under their current performance, with 99% of these programs housed at institutions in the for-profit sector. However, Gainful Employment has been met with bipartisan resistance due to concern that low-income students will be negatively impacted by having their access to vocational programs restricted. Advocates for heightened scrutiny of predatory academic programs, on the other hand, point to high 3-year default rates at for-profit institutions and raise important questions on whether this is the type of access any student should have available as a source of postsecondary instruction.
President Obama’s push to tie a proposed ratings system to federal financial aid will also be met with resistance from Congress. Senator Lamar Alexander, R-TN, for example, has argued that the U.S. Congress and Department of Education have no business developing a rating system and has instead pushed for transparency that will help students and families make informed decisions on college choice. Still, many in the higher education community eagerly await the proposed metrics for this ratings system as well as how the Obama Administration might use the ratings without the leverage of student aid.
Higher Education and the States
The mid-term elections also translated into Republican gains in state legislatures and governorships across the United States. On Tuesday of this week, AASCU released a post-election update that reported Republicans now control both legislative chambers in 30 states and, in 24 states, Republicans now have control of both the executive and legislative branches.
Reductions in cost to the student, the state, and the institution will persist as a policy theme in most states. So will accountability. A recent example of how policymakers have tied cost to accountability is in Florida, where Republican incumbent Governor Rick Scott won re-election. There, the State University System, along with strong policymaker support, recently implemented an outcomes-based performance funding model where a student’s cost per undergraduate degree is a key factor on which universities are evaluated for fiscal year budget recommendations.
Many in the higher education policy community speculate little potential for new money to be funneled to institutions as many state legislatures, particularly those that have Republican majorities, continue to push for tax cuts and spending reductions. However, tax and spending priorities will be met with public concern for the rising cost of tuition. In addition, the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ 2013 Finance Report suggests there may be a period of modest recovery as appropriations per FTE student increased by 1.4 percent and overall state and local funding for higher education increased .7 percent from the prior fiscal year.
To stay informed on current and future updates on state and federal policy issues, you may find the following resources to be helpful and informative:
• U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee
• U.S. House Subcommittee Higher Education Workforce Training
• U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee – Education
• National Conference of State Legislatures
• National Governors Association