So much has happened since the last Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization – the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. NASA scientists found water on Mars. Music streaming platforms were invented. Ridesharing apps have become one of the most popular forms of transportation.
In 2019, we’ve reached the 11th year since Congress has rewritten the law in earnest. And yet, here we still are without a reauthorization of HEA. How did we get here?
Let’s take a look at the process. Congress looks at big pieces of legislation like this on a cycle—usually every 5 years. So, six years ago they “should” have done this. But, like the rest of us with big deadlines, Congress usually waits until the due date is close to begin the process. Secondly, a “big bill” like HEA is hard. There are a lot of interests, opinions, policies, and politics to balance. And—if the process isn’t finished before the next crop of members come in, they—technically—start back at the beginning. So, 11 years in without a law is a long time, but not terribly surprising.
This is not to say nothing has happened toward a full reauthorization. There has been a flurry of activity this fall with the Chairmen of the relevant Committees. In September, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander introduced the Student Aid Improvement Act (SAIA) in place of a long overdue comprehensive HEA reauthorization. Although this piecemeal bill was not comprehensive, it still included important elements to support today’s students, such as simplifying the FAFSA process by cutting down the length of the application and removing duplicated questions. Forty-two percent of all students do not complete the FAFSA. SAIA also proposed an increase of the Income Protection Allowance for student parents, improve the process to notify eligible students of SNAP benefits, and to streamline the communication between federal agencies.
The following month, the House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott introduced the College Affordability Act (CAA), which served to reauthorize HEA. CAA included many proposals that support today’s students, such as proposals to improve the nation’s quality assurance system by focusing accreditation on student outcomes and improving federal accountability metrics and ways to create more pathways for today’s students through competency-based education and high-quality short-term programs. Other CAA proposals included better connections and eligibility rules between students and means-tested benefit programs, expanding the use of open textbooks and micro-grants, and simplifying the financial aid and repayment systems. While that legislation has gone through the committee process, it has yet to be considered by the full House of Representatives.
To date, this is where movement on a comprehensive HEA rewrite stops. However, a comprehensive reauthorization is not the only higher education activity in Congress.
In September, the House of Representatives passed the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act. This month, Chairman Lamar Alexander, along with Ranking Member Patty Murray and Senators Richard Burr, Chris Coons, Doug Jones, and Tim Scott, introduced a bipartisan amendment to permanently fund Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), simplify the FAFSA process, and streamline loan repayment, which Congress passed and sent to the President for signature just last week.
While this passage is significant and a positive policy change for students, it still does not offer what a comprehensive HEA reauthorization would. Today’s students need a higher education law that supports their needs, creates conditions of success, and envisions a system of higher learning for the new decade and beyond.
So, will we get a new HEA law in 2020? I’m not so sure. Maybe we will see some pieces land on President Trump’s desk before the 2020 Congress finishes—but my bets are against a full rewrite before then. However, and critically, that doesn’t mean it’s time for advocates, students, and other stakeholders to pay attention to other things. The policy process is happening now—new, big ideas are unlikely to be included late into the process; political and policy lines are being drawn; and advocates should be engaging in the process now. And, today’s students—and their success in higher education – should be at the center of any rewrite.