Aim Higher and PROSPER on the table: What’s the takeaway for higher ed leaders?

Dive Brief:

  • Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a bill summary of the Aim Higher Act, their stance on how to comprehensively reauthorize the Higher Education Act, a critical piece of legislation guiding federal higher education policy, which due to lack of bipartisan agreement has not been renewed since 2008. Even with the unveiling, Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said in a phone conversation that “nothing major is going to happen. If Congress wants to get something done, there are a few bipartisan pieces. But if they pass those, there’s no reason why HEA would be reauthorized soon.”
  • Kelchen mentions the bipartisan reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act, which flew through both chambers of Congress this week and now sits on President Donald Trump’s desk to be signed. “Both Democrats and Republicans are interested in career and technical education, and this spreads into HEA reauthorization through interest in expanding Pell Grants for short-term training programs,” said Kelchen, noting he thinks “any action on something that is solely under HEA’s domain will be through regulation instead of separate legislation.”
  • Still, industry leaders ought to pay attention to conversations around the Aim Higher Act, said Julie Peller, executive director of education policy group Higher Learning Advocates, noting the bill “signals where the conversation regardless of what happens in November will be.” Ranking member of the committee on Education and the Workforce, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-VA, said during the unveiling of the bill that it’s not a response to pressure from progressive candidates, but rather a reaction “to the PROSPER Act that makes things worse” and “to every town hall meeting we’ve had” where “crushing student debt is always brought up.” Scott added a budget for the package is not available yet.

Dive Insight:

The bill summary of the Aim Higher Act follows the heels of Republicans’ introduction of their version of the HEA called the PROSPER Act, or Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform, in December 2017. When House Republicans introduced the 500-plus page piece of legislation last year, policymakers were still struggling to make sense of it all and broach bipartisan conversations. But, it became clear the legislation was focused on deregulation, with key provisions, for instance, to eliminate the Education Department’s oversight and ability to create new regulations around gainful employment, a type of institutional accountability measure based on student return on investment.

Scott said during the bill’s unveiling that it’s based on access, affordability and completion through availability of college choice data, relief to students struggling with rising costs and for those who borrow, making loans easier to repay, and a crack down on predatory for-profit institutions.

And as Craig Lindwarm, assistant vice president of congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said in a phone conversation with Education Dive, “these bills are polar opposites” and at this point “it’s a message about House Democrat priorities and a signal of where they might begin if they retake the House next year.”

In a nutshell, said Kelchen, the Aim Higher Act is advocating for “Obama-era status quo,” with some areas of bipartisanship. Most areas of contention are around regulations concerning for-profits and student loan repayment. In terms of where there is likely to be conversation going forward with HEA reauthorization, it’s those areas in both bills where there has already been a great deal of discussion, said Peller.

“Both pieces of legislation do deal with expanding student aid into short-term programs, competency-based education, both look at the role of accreditation and accountability and oversight, and the other thing is the financial aid process,” said Peller. She added that even with these areas of agreements the solutions each party has proposed are remarkably different.

For example, the CTE reauthorization reflects the outcomes of bipartisan negotiations, as the act would eliminate the negotiation process between the education secretary and states over how they form their CTE programs, offering states greater autonomy. Similarly when it comes to accountability, the PROSPER Act advocates for accreditation groups to develop a system of analyzing institutional outcomes independent of the Department of Education, while the Aim Higher Act would shift reviews for items like Title IV back to the Department away from accrediting bodies, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

Ultimately, Kelchen said that in terms of actionable change industry leaders ought to be paying attention to regulatory policies because the solutions proposed in both versions of these bills are likely to be remarkably different as conversations come to a close on reauthorizing HEA.

For now, he suggested industry leaders pay attention to which issues have common ground, with particular focus on regulatory processes. For instance, the Education Department on Wednesday released proposed regulations on student loan forgiveness that marks a departure from Obama-era borrower defense rules introduced in 2016.

“Pay attention to negotiated rule making, there may be something about accreditation, borrowers defense to repayment, whatever comes out of gainful employment. I think those will end up being much bigger than anything that comes out of the legislation in the next couple of years,” said Kelchen.

This article was originally published on Education Dive.