On March 22, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke before congressional leaders about Republican-led efforts to take advantage of the reauthorization process for the Higher Education Act (HEA) to make major changes to how colleges and universities are governed.
Calling the HEA “outdated,” the secretary held up the PROSPER Act, a Republican-backed bill that would reform the HEA. DeVos said, “In the coming months, we intend to announce negotiated rulemaking to address higher education regulations which stifle innovation by limiting opportunities for students, and unnecessarily burdening agencies and institutions.”
STUDENT LOAN FORGIVENESS
That sounds innocent enough, but the PROSPECT Act – introduced by North Carolina Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx – set off a wave of controversy on all sides of the political spectrum, especially when it came to a provision gutting Public-Sector Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). “[The bill] would eliminate a program that allows borrowers in full-time public service jobs to have their student loans forgiven after making payments for 10 years – a move that military and veterans groups say would hurt their members,” the Military Times reported.
A group of Republican lawmakers also dissented to Foxx’s reform bill in a public letter, saying, “Teachers, firefighters, police officers, military veterans, prosecutors, social workers, doctors, nurses, veterinarians and charitable employees are among the dedicated professionals that have told us PSLF provides the financial feasibility they need to dedicate their careers to serving our communities.”
In an op-ed in the The Hill, American Association of State Colleges and Universities President Mildred García and Association of Public and Land-grant Universities President Peter McPherson said that in addition to the loan forgiveness issue, “[T]he bill would eliminate Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs). These grants leverage funding matches by colleges and universities and provide up to $4,000 to the neediest students so they can pursue a college education that unlocks a lifetime of opportunity. But just as access to college becomes more important than ever, the elimination of Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants would make college less accessible for students who stand to gain the most from a college education.”
But DeVos’s dream of overhauling the Higher Education Act may not come to fruition – at least not yet. The Washington Post reported in June that congressional disagreement over the PROSPER Act kept it from reaching a full floor vote in the House of Representatives in June.
The HEA, signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is reauthorized every several years, sometimes with significant amendments. Higher education advocates are concerned that in light of the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016, a Republican-led Congress could significantly alter federal governance of higher education.
In April, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the PSC’s affiliated national union, was among 46 organizations – including civil rights groups, educational advocates and disability rights groups – who publicly outlined priorities for any changes to the act.
Guiding principles outlined by the AFT included,
- 1. “Ensure robust implementation and enforcement of civil rights laws.”
- 2. “Remove barriers to enrollment and promote meaningful access.
- 3. “Increase student persistence in and completion of a quality, racially equitable postsecondary education.”
- 4. “Make college affordable for low-income students.”
- 5. “Provide for the collection and reporting of higher education data.”
- 6. “Design accountability systems to ensure students receive value from their higher education, and not in a way that limits opportunity.”
- 7. “Exclude for-profit colleges from federal financial aid programs unless they have demonstrated their value to students.”
- 8. “Protect student loan borrowers.”
- 9. “Ensure safe and inclusive campus climates.”
Even though the PROSPER Act might have hit a road block this congressional session, other legislation to reauthorize the HEA is inevitable. And according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, DeVos has promised to achieve her preferred policy goals through the department’s regulatory process if she cannot attain them expeditiously through HEA reauthorization.
The paper reported, “Among DeVos’s targets for reregulation or deregulation are rules aimed at protecting students from being defrauded by colleges, most of them for-profit institutions; rules that cracked down on colleges, also mostly for-profits, that saddled students with loan debts they could not pay off; rules that fostered state-level authorization of for-profit chains; and perhaps most controversial, the enforcement of Title IX, the part of the law that has been central to a crackdown on sexual harassment and assault on campuses.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten said, “Any reauthorization of the Higher Education Act must make it easier for every person in this country to pursue higher education successfully, regardless of where they grew up, the color of their skin, their religion or their immigration status. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that everyone who wants to go to college can go to one that will support them.”
The Senate also has little sign of movement on HEA this session, as Senator Lamar Alexander – a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education and Pensions – told The New York Times that his committee will not produce HEA reauthorization legislation this year.