Harkin’s Last Act?

Among the new provisions in the retiring Democrat's final proposal to rewrite the Higher Education Act are a student unit record system and incentives for colleges to graduate more Pell Grant recipients. 

November 21, 2014
Sen. Tom Harkin

WASHINGTON -- With just weeks left before he retires from Congress, Senator Tom Harkin has finalized his proposal to rewrite the Higher Education Act.

Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, on Thursday filed an 874-page bill to reauthorize the main federal law governing higher education.

Harkin said his legislation is aimed at reining in tuition, easing loan repayment for borrowers and holding institutions more accountable. He said in a statement that “a lack of accountability and transparency makes deciding where to go to school and how to pay for it a far more confusing and potentially risky process.”

Much of the bill is similar to the draft legislation on which Harkin solicited input from higher education groups earlier this year. The legislation calls for new federal accountability measures for college, such as a loan repayment rate of former students, and increased consumer protections for student loan borrowers.

Community colleges, in particular, have praised the legislation for restoring year-round Pell Grants and a pathway for students without high school diplomas or an equivalent credential to receive federal aid. Congress in recent years has eliminated both programs, which advocates say has forced some students to drop out.

The version of Harkin’s bill released Thursday contains several new provisions, which include the following:

  • Changing how colleges receive Perkins Loans and Work Study funding so that their allocations are more closely tied to how many low- and middle- income students an institution serves.
  • Creating a “Pell Bonus” pilot program that would award extra funds to colleges that enroll and graduate low-income students.
  • Allows the federal government to create a student unit record system to track student performance and employment outcomes across higher education
  • Establishes a pilot program for streamlining the application for federal student aid in which students, barring any significant change in their financial situation, would apply for aid only once for four years.  

Harkin’s legislation is unlikely to advance anywhere in the last few weeks of the current lame-duck Congress, as lawmakers focus, among other things, on legislation to fund the government beyond December 11 when its current funding expires. However, Harkin’s bill may serve as a guiding document for Senate Democrats in the next Congress.

Senator Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the education committee who is expected to become its chair next year, has said he wants to “start from scratch” on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and focus on reducing regulations on colleges and simplifying student aid


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