On December 12, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce took its first meaningful steps toward reauthorizing the Higher Education Act since 2008. Dubbed the PROSPER Act (Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform), their opening bid includes provisions that have significant implications for the education industry, as well as issues of access and equity in higher education, such as a proposed elimination of the 90/10 rule, granting for-profit institutions equal access to federal programs, and creating a one-loan, one-grant program.
For years, we have heard calls from wonks and commentators to apply a “clean sheet of paper approach” to reauthorizing the nation’s higher education law. That’s because in the decade since our last reauthorization, the demographics of American college students have shifted. Among other considerations, one in four college students now takes at least one course online.
As a former Congressional Committee staffer, I know first-hand the complexities involved with responding to calls and requests from a multitude of thoughtful stakeholders and single-issue constituencies. I appreciate the delicate dance of reconciling often competing research, interests and agendas—and, of course, partisan politics. And so, we should applaud, as no small feat, the efforts of members and staff in drafting and introducing a bill designed to modernize and—in some ways—reimagine higher education policy.
Before the bill was introduced, speculation about provisions and their impact started flying on social media channels, conference calls, and in sidebar conversations between colleagues. My Twitter feed exploded with jabs among colleagues rife with pithy statements and terse press releases. That’s not surprising. Politics is tough business; higher education is no exception.
But what is, perhaps, more interesting than the issues that divide the higher education community are the areas of alignment evident in the House bill. Issues where institutions and reformers, regulators and advocates may be approaching a rare moment of consensus. Taken together, they reflect a clarion call for change. So what’s in? What’s out? And what’s likely to happen next? Here’s my take.
We have a new student consumer.
Today’s college student isn’t the same student Virginia Foxx went to school with. And as it turns out, it may not be the student that her staffers went to school with either. According to Higher Learning Advocates, 40 percent of today’s students attend school part-time, more than half work while in college, and a quarter are parents. Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) confirm that nearly three-quarters of all undergraduates enrolled matched at least one "nontraditional" characteristic (e.g., having children, working full-time, or not having a high school degree).
The bill’s proposed apprenticeship programs and push for FAFSA simplification reflect, at least, tacit recognition of what Ted Mitchell once characterized as “new normal” students. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle appear to understand that the demographics of higher education are changing.
Higher education is too expensive. And the return for students is dwindling.
Enough ink has been spilled about the rising cost of college. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation reports that students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile are eight times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than those from the top quartile. But against a backdrop of “up-credentialing,” even those who do earn a degree may find diminishing returns on their investment as they enter the workforce. According a recent survey, 59 percent of college graduates thought they were ready to apply their skills and knowledge to the real world, but only 23 percent of employers agreed. And the long-standing ban on a federal student data system (retained in the House bill) will only stymie efforts to connect college credentials with workforce outcomes.
Time is limited, and politics will muddy the waters.
What’s often overlooked in mainstream media coverage of the Higher Education Act is that the end of the Congressional session is upon us. There are few working days left between today and adjournment. Last week, the Committee marked up the PROSPER Act, and it was reported to the House on a party-line vote. It is unclear whether the bill will be considered by the House before the start of spring. As we saw, Committee Democrats only had their say on key postsecondary education policy issues through a tightly-controlled amendment process, and House Democrats are unlikely to support the current version of the PROSPER Act once the bill reaches the floor. We are already operating within a highly partisan environment, with no respite.
Unlikely to Survive the Senate
Congressional politics won’t get any less partisan as we approach the midterm elections. And given the narrower majority in the Senate, early 2018 is likely to bring an early, and greater bipartisan reauthorization effort than what we saw in the House. It’s hard to imagine that a bipartisan reauthorization bill in the Senate—perhaps, considered by Senators on the eve of a final swing through their home states—is likely to include some of the more contentious provisions from the House bill. Here’s what’s likely to be left “out” of the Senate version:
- Creation of a single definition for a higher education institution, which grants for-profit institutions equal access to federal programs as non-profit institutions;
- Repeal of Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs, which target disciplines and high-need industries;
- Repeal of programs and provisions which support teacher education at institutions of higher education;
- Redistribution of campus-based aid funds through a new fair-share formula; and
- Repeal of Grad PLUS and limitations on graduate students participating in federal work-study.
So, will we have a final bill? Or is all this just posturing? Progress is being made; and the guideposts being established in last week’s bill warrant close consideration. But from where I sit, it’s unlikely that advocates, students, and families will see comprehensive reform to the nation’s higher education law before the fall of 2018.