The Outlook For Higher Education Reform in the 116th Congress

Last week, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) shared their agendas for higher education reform, providing insight into what may be in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

On Monday, February 4, Senator Alexander spoke about HEA reauthorization at the American Enterprise Institute. He announced three proposals for updating HEA:

1) Simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

  • The senator offered two ways to do this. First, decreasing the number of questions from 108 to a maximum of two dozen. Second, enabling multiple questions to be answered through information that the IRS already has accessible.

2) Streamline the options to repay student loans

  • The senator proposed cutting the number of options to repay loans from nine to two. One option includes deducting 10 percent of a person’s income not needed for necessities directly out of their  paycheck. If the borrower is unemployed no money would be required to be repaid, and this would not affect their credit score. The other option would be a 10-year monthly payment plan. Senator Alexander voiced support for loan forgiveness after 20 years.

3) Create a new accountability system for colleges to report whether borrowers are able to repay loans

  • Every program at every college would be required to report on whether borrowers are able to pay off their loans. This was described as an expansion and simplification of gainful employment.

Senator Alexander also discussed his support for competency-based education and expanding Pell Grant eligibility to include summer programs, as well as giving currently and previously incarcerated individuals access to Pell.

There have been multiple proposals in the Senate that touch upon these three ideas and Senator Alexander plans to work with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate HELP Committee, and the rest of the committee to introduce one inclusive piece of legislation this spring so that the full Senate and House of Representatives are able to pass reauthorization by the new year. You can find the video, transcript and summary of Senator Alexander’s remarks here.

Later in the week, at Inside Higher Ed’s event on Higher Ed in the New Congress on Thursday, February 7, Senator Alexander underscored his three proposals. Representative Scott spoke as well, ensuring that HEA reauthorization will be an opportunity for comprehensive higher education reform. Some of the priorities for Representative Scott include:

  • Simplifying FAFSA;
  • Strengthening the federal oversight;
  • Incentivizing states to invest in public higher education;
  • Developing opportunities for tuition-free community college; and
  • Improving campus safety.

Representative Scott reminded the audience that although increased college enrollment is important, increased completion rates are what demonstrate success. He also discussed how HEA must address the rising cost of college in its measures to make college more affordable.  

Both expressed commitment to reauthorizing HEA in a bipartisan manner.

Meredith Hills, Policy Associate

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