Baby Steps for Higher Ed Act

July 24, 2014

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House on Wednesday unanimously passed legislation boosting competency-based education and overwhelmingly approved an overhaul of how the Education Department discloses college data.

The votes marked the first time that a body of Congress has formally weighed in on the ongoing efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the massive law that governs federal student aid, which expires at the end of this year.

But reauthorization is still far off. Wednesday’s bipartisan votes belie the stark divisions on Capitol Hill over key parts of the law that make it unlikely Congress will renew the Higher Education Act before year's end. Congress has rarely acted in recent years to reauthorize the law on time; the last reauthorization took five years.  

House Republicans are moving ahead with a plan to rewrite the law in smaller pieces, which leaders said would attract more bipartisan support for the bills. Indeed the competency-based education bill was approved on a 414-0 vote, and the proposal aimed at streamlining college information disclosures was passed on a bipartisan basis on a voice vote.

Democrats supported the two measures up for a vote Wednesday, but several said they were disappointed that the bills do not go far enough in addressing rising levels of student debt and the growing price of college.

Republicans on Tuesday again rebuffed an effort to provide direct federal relief to existing student loan borrowers. House lawmakers rejected, by a 221 to 194 vote, an effort by Representative John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat, to provide students who took out a loan over the past year with a rebate for the amount they would have saved under lower interest rates. That’s a scaled down proposal from the Democrats’ student loan refinancing measure, which would have applied to all existing borrowers but failed to clear the Senate last month.

Meanwhile, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, is in the process of soliciting comments on his 700-page comprehensive rewrite of the Higher Education Act. He has said he wants to move ahead with an all-encompassing bill rather than adopting the House’s piecemeal approach.

Boost for Competency

The politics of finalizing a new Higher Education Act notwithstanding, Wednesday’s vote represented a huge win for supporters of competency-based education.

Under the legislation passed by the House, the Education Department would allow federal student aid to flow to up to 30 academic programs that want to experiment with competency-based education. Those experiments could involve as many as several thousand students.

The legislation would go beyond the efforts of the Obama administration to provide waivers to some colleges that want to use competency-based education.  

The Education Department announced Tuesday that it plans to use its authority under existing law to waive some federal aid regulations for colleges that want to experiment with a range of innovative educational models, including competency-based education.

For several hours on the House floor Tuesday, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle took turns praising competency-based learning as a way to help nontraditional students and lower the cost of higher education.

Representative John Kline of Minnesota, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, called the legislation a “good first step” to figuring out what works and doesn’t work for competency-based education.

Representative George Miller, the top Democrat on the House education committee, called competency-based education "one of the promising new innovations to help make college more affordable and more accessible.”

Miller specifically thanked “the leaders of this movement,” citing the Lumina Foundation, the New America Foundation, Southern New Hampshire University, Capella University and the California State University System.

Overhaul in Information for Students

Separately, the House passed legislation that seeks to streamline the information that the Education Department provides about colleges to prospective students and their families.

The legislation would also eliminate the so-called “shame” lists that the Education Department has been required to publish for each of the past four years, highlighting the most and least expensive colleges. The bill would also do away with the department’s annual list that tracks state spending on higher education, which has plummeted in recent years.

More Data About Adjuncts

Part of the bill would also require colleges and universities to report the ratio of the number of courses taught by part-time instructions and full-time instructors. It would also require them to report the mean and median years of employment of their part-time instructors.

The SEIU, a union that represents some adjunct faculty, praised that part of the legislation. 

“This important legislation gives students, faculty, lawmakers and the public more information about what’s happening in higher education,” the union’s president, Mary Kay Henry, said in a statement, adding that “it’s good to see Congress is interested in shining a spotlight on trends in higher education that have marginalized contingent and part-time faculty.”

The American Federation of Teachers also backed the measure, but the group said it had also wanted lawmakers to require more detailed information about the salaries of adjunct faculty.

New Deregulatory Task Force

The House also passed an amendment to the competency-based education bill that would form a federal panel to look at ways to deregulate higher education.

The sponsors of the amendment -- Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a Republican, and Representative Peter Welch of Vermont, a Democrat -- said it was aimed at reducing the burden of federal regulation on colleges, which in turn would provide savings for students.

Welch said his goal was to get college administrators more actively involved to make college more affordable and sustainable. He said many college leaders have told him that they are bogged down by federal requirements.

“Sometimes that can be an excuse,” he said. “But let’s take a look at them.”

The Gowdy-Welch proposal is the latest effort in Washington to deregulate higher education.

Last year, a bipartisan group of four Senators announced a task force of higher education leaders to identify which federal rules they’d like to see curtailed. The American Council on Education, the umbrella higher education lobbying group, is helping that effort, and the group plans to produce a report later this year. (An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly said the task force was comprised of four Senate Democrats; in fact, there are two Republicans and two Democrats on the panel.)

Separately, Congress also last year gave the National Academies $1 million to study the topic.

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