Funding for higher ed
The right-wing publication the Federalist called it “garbage,” while Teen Vogue said it “doesn’t go far enough.” So call it the Goldilocks of federal higher education funding bills.
The College Affordability Act introduced in the House last fall is backed by congressional Democrats and would reauthorize the federal Higher Education Act in such a way that, as American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten put it in a statement, it would meet “the needs of the struggling and the striving by creating a genuine pathway to college affordability, revamping loan forgiveness so it is there for people who need it, and increasing the investment in colleges and universities – institutions that have long suffered terrible disinvestment.”
The proposal is meant to be a rebuke, not just to the systematic disinvestment in higher education over the decades, but to recent anti higher education policy crafted by US Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.
- The bill’s most important proposals, as stated by the AFT, are:
- A federal-state partnership to make tuition and fees for all community college students free.
- A 625 increase in the minimum Pell Grant.
- Availability of Pell Grants to incarcerated students and undocumented students, and also for qualifying short-term programs.
- Improvements to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program so that administrative hurdles no longer stand in the way of the loan forgiveness public employees have earned.
- Restoration of subsidized loans for graduate students.
- Increased accountability in Title IX language so that there is more accountability regarding sexual assault and harassment on campus.
- More wraparound services to increase student retention.
- Restoration of the gainful employment rule, which Education Secretary Betsy DeVos repealed. (The rule requires that career education programs – including all those at for-profit institutions – show that their graduates are able to find “gainful employment” upon graduating, preventing the perpetuation of shoddy programs.)
- Restoration of the borrower-defense rule, also repealed by DeVos. (This rule ensures that students who were defrauded by their institutions can have their student loans discharged.)
- Closing the 90-10 loophole and restoring it to 85-15. The 90-10 rule requires that for-profit colleges get at least 10 percent of their funding from sources other than federal financial aid – but a loophole exists in current law that means aid for military veterans (the GI Bill, for example) is excluded from that category.
- Additional grant aid for students who attend minority-serving institutions (including historically black colleges and universities).
The bill is meant to strengthen federal oversight. The Center for American Progress said, “Legislation would strengthen the Department of Education’s role in overseeing the agencies it authorizes as gatekeepers. Today, agencies essentially pick minimal examples of their best work to put up for review by the department. Changes would ensure that the department evaluates a representative sample of the accreditors’ work and reevaluates how those examples are chosen.”
Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said of the College Affordability Act, “This proposal immediately cuts the cost of college for students and families and provides relief for existing borrowers. At the same time, it improves the quality of education by holding schools accountable for their students’ success, and it meets students’ individual needs by expanding access to more flexible college options and stronger support – helping students graduate on time and move into the workforce.”
The problem facing the Democratic plan is in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Scott’s Republican counterpart, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), offered in September what the press called a narrower reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, dismissed the Alexander plan, and in a statement said that it “reflects a piecemeal approach to higher education that fails to promote economic security and equity for millions of students with low incomes.”