Republicans plot sweeping changes in higher education

After a flurry of movement last week on the reauthorisation of the federal law governing higher education, which is overdue for an update, the US House of Representatives last Friday introduced its bill to overhaul the Higher Education Act of 1965.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Summary details of the legislation, including plans to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, cap the amount that graduate students may borrow, and end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness programme, were reported earlier in the week, but the release of the full text fleshes out the details of those proposals.

The bill is a move toward undoing some priorities of the Obama administration, said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “It salts the earth on gainful employment and college ratings,” he said.

But it also does more to try to simplify student loans and income-driven repayment plans, he continued, and delves into some of the more political issues in higher education. The bill would ban free-speech zones and deny federal funds to public institutions that do not recognize campus religious groups.

A final version of legislation to reauthorize higher education’s foundational law will likely look vastly different from the legislation proposed on Friday. Democrats on the House’s Committee on Education and the Workforce have complained that they had little to no input in the legislation.

Meanwhile, in the US Senate, which may well have a larger footprint on a final bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander, chair of the chamber’s education committee, and Sen. Patty Murray, its ranking member, have agreed to pursue a bipartisan proposal.

Here is a rundown of the major provisions in the bill:

Campus sexual assault

The legislation appears to codify the interim guidance on Title IX [which protects people from discrimination based on sex] and campus sexual assault from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights with more detail, said Scott D Schneider, a lawyer who specialises in higher-education issues at the firm Fisher Phillips. The guidance was issued after the Trump administration repealed the Obama-era regulations, in September.

“For instance,” he said, “schools will get to pick which standard of evidence they will use in disciplinary proceedings,” as long as that standard is applied consistently. “Preponderance of evidence”, a lower standard compared with “clear and convincing evidence”, according to due-process advocates, was set out in a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Obama administration.

The bill would also require that all parties in a case have information a week before a disciplinary proceeding, which is in line with what most Title IX practitioners recommend. The legislation also includes a requirement that colleges conduct annual sexual-assault surveys.

Minority-serving institutions

As reported last Wednesday, the legislation would tie Title III and Title V funds [which both support improving education] for minority-serving institutions, including historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, to their ability to graduate or transfer 25% of their students. A Chronicle analysis estimated the number of colleges that might be affected by the proposal.

Johnny C Taylor Jr, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an advocacy group for black colleges, praised the legislation for incorporating provisions that would expand the permitted use of Title III funding. He also applauded the addition of the University of the Virgin Islands as a Title III-eligible institution.

Career and technical education

Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration have placed a heavy emphasis on apprenticeships and career training as an alternative to “traditional” four-year degrees, and the legislation proposed on Friday would expand access to those programmes.

A White House outline of priorities for the reauthorisation includes a provision that would expand eligibility for Pell Grants [for students in financial need] for “high-quality short-term, summer, and certificate programmes.”

Last month a senior department official, Kathleen Smith, told The Chronicle that nothing was off the table for the administration in terms of expanding apprenticeship programmes. One tool to test programmes’ efficiency is the department’s Experimental Sites Authority, which it can use to waive regulatory requirements.

The bill would require rigorous evaluation of the experimental sites, but it includes a provision that would require congressional “notice and comment” on the projects, said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher-education policy at New America, a think tank. That process had a “chilling effect” on experiments in the past because it required the department to go to Congress for approval on sites.

Better data

The legislation would require the education secretary to create a website known as the “College Dashboard,” but the site is very similar to what has been seen before, with the inclusion of some additional data points, said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. However, she said, the data provided on the dashboard would not include all students, but only those who receive federal financial aid.

One way the bill could have fixed that gap, she continued, would have been to lift the ban on a student “unit record” system – which it keeps in place. There has been broad bipartisan, bicameral support for removing the ban.

“It is a missed opportunity,” she said. “This is a policy solution that would help students, families, and college leaders. And I feel that Representative Foxx has missed the mark.” (Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, is chair of the House education committee.)

Student aid

In line with news earlier in the week, the legislation would create a “consumer-tested, mobile-friendly” Fafsa – or free application for student aid – within a year of its passage. The Education Department is in the process of creating a mobile app for the student-aid application.

The federal student-loan system would also see an overhaul and shift to a “one-grant, one-loan” system, a move that many higher-education observers saw in the cards. And the Public Service Loan Forgiveness programme – which forgives the remaining balance on a student’s loan after they have made 120 qualifying monthly payments while working full time – would be eliminated.