Higher Ed Reauthorization is a Multi-Dimensional Chess Game

Unfortunately, the Players Don’t Understand the Rules.

The White House recently released its priorities for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which hasn’t been overhauled since 2008. As Hallie Busta reports in Education Dive, this is the first time that the Trump Administration has weighed in with a higher education policy agenda and aligned it with its federal budget blueprint.

Student Loans, Financial Aid Among Administration Reauthorization Priorities

The proposed changes could be important if they gain traction. Some are bureaucratic. One change, for instance, calls for reimagining accreditation based on institutional mission rather than by geographical region. There is also a proposal to add risk-sharing between colleges and students when determining financial aid.

Even more dramatic are reforms that would open up the potential to programs that establish income-based loan repayments. The Trump Administration will also ask Congress to pilot a “market-driven workforce development” program, provide Pell Grants for short-term programs, and expand the Federal Work Study Program. Finally, they want to cap parent and graduate student borrowing.

The budget priorities reflect White House policy positions. These include eliminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and other income-based repayment plans and replacing them with a single option capped at 12.5% of a borrower’s monthly discretionary income.

The Administration wants to forgive all loans to undergraduates after 180 months of income-driven repayments. It also requests that Congress limit how much families and graduate students can borrow under the PLUS loans program but takes no position on whether or not to collect program-level outcomes data.

Although a political stalemate is still possible, signs of progress have emerged. Both the House and Senate have scheduled hearings through their education committees to discuss their options when reauthorizing the HEA. The White House supports a timeline set by Senate committee chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who wants to pass bipartisan legislation before the end of the year.

Higher Ed Associations Have Set Reauthorization Priorities

As you might expect, the national higher education associations also have established priorities for HEA reauthorization. They offered three dozen recommendations, ask for a broad student-level data collection system, and want to expand access to Pell Grants.

At the same time, a host of other industry groups are working to rewrite key regulations in areas including alternative education delivery models and the future of online education.

Nation’s Mood Will Play Role in Higher Education Reauthorization

The succinct summary in Education Dive provides important insight into the mood of the country on higher education. It will be important to read this mood carefully as the negotiations begin in earnest. But there are already several indicators that bear close attention.

Not surprisingly, the first is that higher education remains a deeply politicized policy debate, a situation that is likely to intensify as the HEA reauthorization proceeds through Congress.

Good policy can sometimes come from bad governance. But if politics unduly influences policy, then higher education policy will never emerge above politics, whatever bipartisan efforts occur.

Second, the mood of the country is anti-higher education. While Americans support higher education in general and continue to view it as a safety valve for American society, they hold a generally low opinion of how it works, whether they should pay for it, and how higher education translates into the kind of social, cultural, and economic stability enjoyed by their parents.

There is unease in the air, and this palpable sense of unspecified hostility will likely have an effect on reauthorization. There are few champions of the current status quo in Congress which puts many good programs at risk.

Debt Relief, Not Access, is Focus of Reauthorization Priorities

Third, the underpinning for many higher education initiatives just released is more aligned to debt relief than increasing access. Most members of Congress do not differentiate between sticker price and the cost of attendance. They fail to understand how higher education works, what the differences are among types of higher education, and the connections between an educated workforce and workforce development.

And that’s the rub because Congress will regulate an industry that it does not understand.

Congress and the Trump Administration should better appreciate that the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a multi-dimensional chess game.

Here is one illustrative example. The Administration proposes to cap debt levels, a concept that sounds like a good thing. In doing so, they make no distinction between undergraduate and graduate debt when assigning blame.

They fail to grasp that some debt levels are lower at public institutions because most state schools receive historic state-based subsidies that artificially lower the actual cost of tuition for families and students. And they presumably forget that most institutions are heavily tuition-dependent, without substantial endowments from which to draw revenue.

The smart policy would be to work with America’s colleges and universities to create a more sustainable operating model to improve access.

In the reauthorization of the HEA, one size does not fit all. There is still time to ask this one critical question: In the technology-driven world of the 21stcentury, what kind of education is best for Americans who still believe that access to a college education is the best way to grow.

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