Access, accountability, and deregulation: A primer on HEA reauthorization

With House and Senate ESEA rewrites on the books, discussion over the Higher Education Act continues.

Senators and representatives on their respective chambers’ education committees are having a big year. The 14-year-old No Child Left Behind finally got a rewrite in July when House Republicans plus one Democrat  and a bipartisan coalition from the Senate approved dueling versions of a bill that expired in 2007. Figuring out how to combine those bills, with their distinct policy goals, is its own monster, but Congressional leaders hope to figure out a way by the end of the year.

While less polarizing than former president George W. Bush’s signature piece of education legislation, the Higher Education Act is also overdue for an update. Congress last agreed on a reauthorization in 2008, which expired in 2013. Committees in the Senate and House are holding hearings and working on draft legislation that they hope to present to their full chambers sometime this fall. Both are considering this rewrite an opportunity to limit government regulation of higher education. As with NCLB (also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), it will likely take quite a bit of work to combine the two drafts into a single document to deliver to President Barack Obama. But for the first time in several years, there seems to be political will to get it done.

Focus areas

Affordability & Financial aid: Congressional leaders are taking the HEA reauthorization as an opportunity to overhaul the FAFSA. Even though the application takes the average student just 20 minutes to fill out, the form is still criticized for being overly complicated and blocking students who need aid from getting it.

There have been a couple of proposals for a redesign. The most extreme has received the support of the Senate’s education committee chairman, Lamar Alexander (R-TN). It would cut the FAFSA to just two main questions: How many people are in your household and what is your household income?

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has come up with an alternate solution that would provide more nuanced information. The group recommends creating a tiered application that would make it especially easy for the lowest-income students to demonstrate their need. If their families qualify for SNAP or SSI, they just have to answer yes to one main question. Those whose income exempts them from filing taxes would provide slightly more, followed by those who fill out standard 1040s with no forms or schedules, and those who have more assets to disclose.

The NASFAA proposal also recommends allowing students to fill out the FAFSA with two-year-old tax data so they can find out their aid eligibility sooner and giving applicants the opportunity to directly import more extensive tax data from the IRS.

When it comes to affordability, legislators seem to be coalescing around the idea that near-unlimited access to federal funds truly does inflate the costs of higher education. Elements of proposals for free two-year college or debt-free college more generally could find their way into the HEA reauthorization.

And, for its part, the House committee is discussing ways to simplify federal grant, loan, and repayment programs.

Accountability: The HEA rewrite is bound to require colleges and universities to prove positive student outcomes to qualify for federal financial aid dollars. Historically, institutions have benefited from higher enrollment simply because students bring financial aid dollars with them. The Senate’s education committee is developing “skin-in-the-game” policies to force higher education institutions to assume a level of liability for their students’ loan repayment rates and pay into a Federal Student Aid Insurance Fund based on a variety of factors.

While legislative pushes by Democrats have focused such accountability measures on for-profit institutions, the Republicans in power are determined to hold all schools accountable, including private nonprofits and publics. The key will be in incentivizing positive outcomes without backing institutions into a corner where they stop admitting students who are less likely to succeed. For its part, the House committee would prefer the government’s role in accreditation to be as small as possible.

The other side of the accountability equation will be providing more information to parents and students as consumers. Legislators are devising plans to cut down on certain types of data collection they find burdensome and unnecessary while increasing the quality of other records, including those related to student financing, success, and safety. The Senate committee is recommending creating an entirely new section in the HEA that will govern data collection and disclosures.

Accreditation: At the time of its first passage, the Higher Education Act deferred to accreditors to set their own standards for high quality programs through a peer-review process the government largely stayed out of. Government financial aid dollars were contingent on securing accreditation, however. In 1992, legislators defined their own set of standards for which accreditors were tasked with monitoring. This has created a conflict for accreditors  are they first a partner to institutions in their journey of self-improvement or a compliance cop on behalf of the government?

Beyond this question, legislators must address the fact that a range of alternative higher education providers have become somewhat mainstream since 2008, and they don’t qualify for federal aid because they don’t fit into the mold of traditional accreditation. Nor do competency-based programs, which are also gaining in popularity. What’s more, regional accreditors may not make sense for a globalized system of higher education.

The possible solutions are many: eliminate the accreditors’ role as gatekeeper for federal funds, create a new accrediting agency to evaluate alternative programs, get rid of regional accreditation in favor of new agencies focused on higher education providers by their institutional classification or their selectivity.

Sexual Assault & Campus Safety: The Campus Accountability and Safety Act highlights a handful of key policy initiatives that could make it into the HEA. This act would require colleges and universities to implement a number of standard practices, including providing victims of sexual assault with confidential advisors, implementing a uniform student disciplinary process, and conducting an anonymous campus climate survey every two years. This survey would be standardized nationwide and results would be made public, giving parents and prospective students a chance to compare institutions using one metric.

If this act makes it into the HEA reauthorization, it would also change the penalties for violations. Right now, Title IX violations come with the potential consequence of losing all financial aid, which is extreme and unprecedented. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act recommends penalties of up to 1% of an institution’s operating budget. It also recommends increasing Clery Act violations to $150,000 from $35,000 per violation.

Next Steps

The Senate’s education committee has been hosting two hearings per month since May to solicit testimony about HEA reauthorization. The next, on Wednesday, will feature testimony about opportunities to improve student success.

Progress updates for the Senate committee’s HEA work can be found here, and for the House committee, here.

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