Insights & Outlooks

4 Ways Congress Made Progress Supporting Today’s Students in 2019

The Higher Education Act, Today's Students
4 Ways Congress Made Progress Supporting Today’s Students in 2019

Washington has earned a reputation in recent years for being so mired in partisan politics that it is unable to act effectively. However, that sweeping assessment misses the fact that there has been some bipartisan action on Capitol Hill on certain issues, including education and skills development.

With 2019 coming to an end, it’s worth pointing out that Congress has made progress on efforts to support the untapped workforce and today’s students over the past year.

Here’s a rundown of some of the noteworthy legislative activity that JFF’s policy team has been following. 

Funding for Apprenticeships

It has been another year filled with bipartisan support for apprenticeship on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have proposed apprenticeship legislation and hosted hearings to highlight best practices and innovations and educate new members about the apprenticeship model. In addition, Congress increased funding for apprenticeship programs. Actions like these help to expand this high-quality, earn-and-learn approach to skills development and employment.  

Progress on Pathways to Health Care Careers

The House Ways and Means Committee approved the Pathways to Health Careers Act (H.R. 3398), which would provide increased opportunities for low-income people to obtain in-demand jobs in health care. Specifically, the act would expand the Health Profession Opportunity Grant (HPOG) program, which provides low-income people with opportunities to pursue education and training for health care jobs. The HPOG initiative is currently a demonstration program; the Pathways to Health Careers Act would expand it to all 50 states. 

Hearings Advance the Conversation About Today’s Students

Over the past year, Congress held a series of hearings focused on updating our nation’s higher education system in order to expand opportunity, economic mobility, and equity for today’s students and workers. The hearings played a key role in moving the conversation forward on who today’s students are and the unique challenges they face. 

For example, in May, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing called “Eliminating Barriers to Employment: Opening Doors to Opportunity,” which focused on potential legislative actions that would make it easier for older workers, people with disabilities, opportunity youth, and ex-offenders to navigate the labor market and find jobs. The discussion highlighted the value of investing in supports for those groups. 

Then in June, the Education and Labor Committee held a hearing called “Innovation to Improve Equity: Exploring High-Quality Pathways to a College Degree,” which highlighted student success strategies. The discussion centered on the fact that, in today’s economy, it is important for all students to have access to high-quality, accelerated postsecondary opportunities, including dual-enrollment and competency-based programs.  

Proposed Updates to the Higher Education Act 

In major legislative moves, the Senate and House Education Committees introduced bills that would update the Higher Education Act (HEA), a law that hasn’t been comprehensively revised since 2008. Both bills propose changes that would simplify the process of applying for financial aid, increase the value of Pell grants, and expand Pell Grants for incarcerated students and short-term credentialing programs. 

Both plans represent steps in the right direction, but JFF believes that more needs to be done to ensure that the U.S. higher education system meets the demands of a changing economy and fulfills the needs of today’s students and the untapped workforce. 

Hoping for More Action in 2020

We hope that Congress will continue to make progress on these programs and reform efforts in 2020. Lawmakers should waste no time in updating the Higher Education Act and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and they should do more to reduce barriers and increase opportunities for credential attainment for today’s students.

JFF’s policy team will be watching Congress with the expectation that we will see some concrete accomplishments in the new year.