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WASHINGTON -- Sharper divisions are emerging between Democrats and Republicans over how Congress should go about reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

House Republicans released an outline Tuesday of their priorities for rewriting the massive law. Their plan includes streamlining and consolidating federal student aid programs as well as eliminating many regulations affecting colleges.

Meanwhile, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, unveiled an outline of the Higher Education Act legislation he is drafting. His proposal calls for year-round Pell Grants, new federal accountability measures for colleges, and increased consumer protections for student loan borrowers.

The vast differences in the competing plans set the stage for partisan clashes in the coming months -- and likely well into next year -- over the federal government’s proper role in keeping college prices down and the extent to which it should hold colleges accountable for the outcomes of their students.

The Republican plan says that college leaders should be responsible for controlling students' college costs and that it’s not the federal government’s job to “dictate college costs or set price controls over tuition and fees.”

“The federal government can help control costs by removing unnecessary and burdensome requirements” on colleges, the report says.

Representative John Kline, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, told reporters Tuesday that reducing requirements on colleges has been “at the core of what we’ve been looking at.”

In addition to reducing what colleges spend to comply with regulations, paring back some rules will also “make sure that institutions have the flexibility to innovate,” he said. The Republican plan singles out competency-based education and direct assessment programs as two types of innovation they hope to promote.

Kline also said that while he wants colleges to be accountable for the federal dollars they receive, it is not the role of the federal government to limit colleges tuition prices.

Harkin’s bill takes a different approach. He said in a statement that he is seeking “bold changes to our system of higher education to make a college education more affordable and accessible.”

The proposal would also hold colleges responsible for how successfully their graduates repay their loans, and set up a commission for exploring “holding low-performing institutions financially responsible for poor student outcomes.”

There is some overlap among the proposals released Tuesday. For instance, both call for improved financial counseling for students and the creation of a single income-based student loan repayment program. But the plans are both largely partisan wish lists, as they contain major proposals that are unlikely to garner much, if any, bipartisan support.

Harkin’s proposal, for instance, seeks to clamp down on for-profit colleges by further reducing the percentage of their revenue that may come from some federal sources and by prohibiting federal money from going to advertising and marketing.

The Republican plan, on the other hand, effectively calls for the repeal or blocking of large chunks of the Obama administration’s higher education agenda over the past six years. The proposal takes aim at the administration’s proposed college ratings system, the gainful employment rules that would govern for-profit colleges, and state authorization regulations. It also says that regulation of teacher preparation programs, over which the administration has sought more oversight, should be “primarily a state responsibility.”

Different Strategies

While Harkin plans to introduce comprehensive legislation, House Republicans said they planned a more piecemeal approach to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

Kline said he would be introducing a handful of smaller bills, starting this week, that address various aspects of the overall plan released Tuesday. He said the strategy was aimed at getting broader, bipartisan support for the legislation.

He said he has been discussing the legislation with House leadership and expected the House to take a vote on at least some of the bills before the November elections.

“This has been the philosophy of the Speaker, that we do things step-by-step and put things out in smaller chunks.” said Representative Virginia Foxx, who chairs the House higher education subcommittee. “It seems to work better.”

“You can sit there with comprehensive bills and make no progress,” Kline added.

A spokeswoman for Representative George Miller, the top Democrat on the House education committee, countered that the House Republican plan amounted to “small potatoes.”

The priorities the Republicans laid out “clearly aren’t a real effort to address real problems like skyrocketing tuition or massive student loan debt, and they won’t make a significant difference in students’ ability to get into, complete, or pay for their education,” said Julia Krahe, the Miller spokeswoman. 

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