Higher Education Bill Expected in Senate Soon

“I see a consensus emerging that is student focused,” Alexander says

HELP Committee leaders Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray are both hoping to move on the Higher Education Act reauthorization soon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
HELP Committee leaders Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray are both hoping to move on the Higher Education Act reauthorization soon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:04am

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee appeared Thursday to agree on a number of provisions they would like to see in a new bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which would streamline student loans.

Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said at a hearing that he hopes to have a Senate version of the reauthorization ready “by early spring.” A House reauthorization bill was approved by the Education and the Workforce Committee on a 23-17 party-line vote in December.

HELP ranking member Patty Murray of Washington said she hopes to work with Alexander on provisions that would help lower-income students, those who are the first in their families to go to college, or who are minorities, veterans, homeless or working adults.

This was the panel’s third hearing on the new legislation. Alexander said the bill would seek to also provide innovative ways to measure student outcomes and give students more options on how to obtain a degree.

“I look forward to a conversation. … on how we can provide a path to students who may not feel there is a place for them in higher education,” Murray said.

Following their opening statements about the direction the bill should take, Alexander told Murray that it appeared “we’re listening to each other.”

“From these hearings I see a consensus emerging that is student focused,” the Tennessee Republican said. “Simpler, more effective regulations that make college more affordable and easier for students to apply for financial aid and pay back their loans; reducing red tape so administrators can spend more time and money on students; making sure a degree is worth the time and money students spend to earn it; and helping colleges keep students safe on campus.”

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New ideas

Lawmakers at the hearing concentrated on access and innovation in education, particularly on distance and competency-based education, programs to support students who need assistance and the availability of education other than the standard four-year degree. Earlier hearings focused on simplifying the federal student loan program, which Alexander complains consists of two grant programs, five loan programs and nine repayment plans.

The 53-year-old Higher Education Act, last reauthorized in 2008, has been extended since expiring at the end of fiscal 2013.

Besides reauthorizing Higher Education Act programs through fiscal 2024, the House bill would repeal a number of reporting requirements and regulations, eliminate loan repayment plans, reauthorize Pell Grants through 2024 and provide an additional $300 bonus for grant recipients taking more than a full-time credit load.

The House bill would also give a single definition of higher education institutions eligible for federal grants and loans, including for-profit schools.

The House’s extensive and partisan overhaul, though, isn’t expected to go anywhere in the Senate, where Alexander must craft a bill that will get at least some Democratic support to avoid a legislative filibuster.

Alexander said there are “a number of proposals from senators” that are both bipartisan and that, he believes, will help schools to offer innovative approaches to providing education.

In particular, he praised higher education legislation already introduced in the Senate including:

  • A bill by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to create a pilot program to monitor student results in completing a course of study and getting a job.
  • A bill by Bennet and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, that aims at promoting new strategies for universities to improve college completion rates and paying them if those strategies are successful.
  • A bill that would allow students to use Pell grants to pay for short-term skills and job training programs that lead to employment in high-demand fields like health care and cybersecurity. Authored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Student outcomes

Under questioning Thursday from Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, Joe May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District in Texas, said outcomes in regard to the jobs students get and the school debt they accumulate can’t be compared between schools.

“We really don’t count every student,” May said. “We seem to value certain students more than others,” he said, noting that the data on outcomes for students who go straight from high school to higher education is detailed while that for less traditional students is not.

“I think that the key to innovation is to start with having better data,” Warren said.

Other witnesses at the hearing talked about taking advantage of learning via computer, but said simple distance learning wasn’t the best approach.

Deborah Bushway, provost at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minnesota, encouraged defining competency-based education in the reauthorization. Compared with online programs, competency-based education is a program that starts from the hoped-for result and builds backward to form a curriculum while also wrapping around the student’s needs, she said.

Both Murray and Alexander suggested competency-based education would be a focus in a reauthorization bill.

Bushway praised Alexander’s use of an example of competency-based education through the story of a nurse named Jennifer that Bushway said is similar to the stories of people she has worked with.

Jennifer, Alexander said, is a working mother studying at the University of Wisconsin, who has earned an associate degree in nursing and needs to get a bachelor’s degree to increase her earning potential.

“Through the university’s new Flexible Option, she is able to earn credits and finish tests and assignments on her own time, including between her shift and her son’s baseball game, to earn her degree sooner,” Alexander said.