House GOP to Propose Sweeping Changes to Higher Education
Wall Street Journal, Douglas Belkin, Josh Mitchell, Melissa Korn
UCOP Daily News Clips, Wednesday, November 29, 2017
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives this week will propose sweeping legislation that aims to change where Americans go to college, how they pay for it, what they study, and how their success—or failure—affects the institutions they attend.
The most dramatic and far-reaching element of the plan is a radical revamp of the $1.34 trillion federal student loan program. It would put caps on borrowing and eliminate some loan forgiveness programs.
The ambitious package—a summary of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal—would be the biggest overhaul of education policy in decades. The rising expense of higher education is deeply troubling to many Americans and many increasingly question its value. Despite a steady rise in the share of high-school graduates heading to college, a skills gap has left more than 6 million jobs unfilled, a significant drag on the economy.
The Republican policy proposals, which would make up the new Higher Education Act, are aimed at filling that gap by both deregulating parts of the sector and laying the conditions for shorter, faster pathways to the workforce. The act focuses on ensuring students don’t just enroll in school, but actually graduate with skills that the labor market is seeking.
The opening House GOP gambit will likely take more than a year to wind through Congress and could undergo substantial revisions before passing into law. The Higher Education Act of 1965 was last reauthorized in 2008. It was set to expire in 2013 but was extended to allow legislators more time to work on a new version. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to score the bill this week.
Although elements of the bill, titled The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity Through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, could gain bipartisan support, many universities are likely to oppose the limits on federal student loans and greater competition as the bill proposes new paths to the workforce that could exclude them.
Still, the bill offers a detailed look at how Republicans envision a higher education system that would better align with the needs of the economy. It makes changes to funding for historically black and minority-serving colleges and touches on hot-button cultural issues including freedom of speech and sexual assault on campus.
The act would create winners and losers. Some student borrowers endure increased burdens and many established universities will face new competition and additional layers of accountability. On the other hand, community colleges will get more funding to team with the private sector and create apprenticeships and the for-profit college sector could get many changes it has lobbied for, including equal footing with nonprofit schools when it comes to limits on federal aid and measurements of graduate success.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce which drafted the proposal, lamented that so much of higher education was considered “irrelevant” by employers. She hopes to better harness technology by pushing accreditors to lean on schools to accept more creative alternatives to higher education.
“Since the last bill came out, we had a big recession and tremendous technological changes,” she said. “We have a shortage of 6 million skilled workers. What we want to do is help colleges provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.”
The plan aims to expand apprenticeships and competency-based education along with more “learn and earn” opportunities, said Rep. Foxx, a former community college president.
The changes align with a call by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for a “major shift” away from reliance on the four-year degree.
“Students should be able to pursue their education where, when and how it works for them and their schedules,” Mrs. DeVos said in a speech on Tuesday. “Financial aid should not be withheld simply because they pursue a nontraditional path. Politicians and bureaucrats should not dictate to students when and how they can learn.”
The higher education establishment is likely to balk at many of the changes, said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which oversees the regional accreditors that serve as gatekeepers to federal student aid. “You will get nontraditional actors like companies that provide coursework for apprenticeships.”
As part of its plan to rein in student loans, graduate students and parents of undergraduates would face so far unspecified caps on how much they could borrow for tuition and living expenses—instead of borrowing whatever schools charge.
The change could cut into enrollment and potentially siphon off billions of dollars a year from universities.
The bill would also end loan-forgiveness programs for public-service employees, who currently can make 10 years of payments and then have their remaining debt forgiven, tax-free. It would also eliminate a program that ties monthly payments to income levels for private-sector workers. Current participants in both programs would be grandfathered in.
Congressional Democrats have argued that the best way to help students is to provide more direct subsidies, including grants, to students and letting them pay off what they can afford for a set time, then forgive the balances. Many Republicans and conservatives believe student aid programs have become too generous and have enabled schools to charge higher prices, ultimately at taxpayers’ expense.
One of the biggest winners in the new higher education legislation is the for-profit college industry, which faced a major crackdown under the Obama administration, amid concerns about students who failed to finish programs and were left saddled with major debt and no way to pay for it.
The rollback of those regulations has been under way since President Donald Trump took office. The reauthorization proposal goes a step further by prohibiting future action by the Education Department on what’s known as the gainful employment regulation, which ties access to federal student aid to whether career programs lead to decent-paying jobs.
Steve Gunderson, CEO and president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, said he is eager to eliminate the gainful employment rule, because it scrutinizes graduate outcomes almost exclusively at for-profit colleges.
“If we can replace those two words with a common set of outcomes metrics for everybody, I think we’re all better off,” he said.
The bill also touches on regulations that online programs view as burdensome, eases restrictions on paying student recruiters and more issues with an outsize effect on for-profit institutions.
“It sounds to me as if they’re including pretty much everything the for-profit schools want,” said Bob Shireman, a deputy Education Department undersecretary in the Education Department in Obama administration and now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation.
While the bill eases up on for- profits, it purports to move toward greater accountability of all schools by revamping the dashboard of information available to prospective students and by mandating that schools would have to pay back some portion of federal loans if the student didn’t. This so called skin-in-the-game proposal has been long fought by the powerful higher education lobby.
“Institutions need to recognize they have a role to play in this process, and they need to have ‘skin-in-the-game’ when it comes to preparing students for success academically and financially,” Dr. Foxx said. “Under the committee’s proposal, if an institution’s program or repayment system doesn’t set up a student for success, then it cannot be eligible for student aid.”