Out on the presidential campaign trail, 2016 is shaping up to be a big year for higher education issues.
But in the U.S. Congress, the prospect that lawmakers will take up, much less pass, a much-anticipated and already overdue overhaul of federal higher education policy this election year seems virtually nonexistent.
Higher education groups, some congressional staffers, and other observers say they don't expect to see a comprehensive rewrite of the Higher Education Act during this presidential election year. And because a new administration, regardless of party, is unlikely to quickly pursue the law’s reauthorization among its first legislative priorities, it may be a couple of years before Congress passes a new Higher Education Act, some said.
“The odds in favor of a higher education reauthorization get longer with every passing day,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities in Washington. “Given the complexity of the task, the cost of some of the proposals and simply the time available, it’s hard to imagine them completing reauthorization this year.”
Both congressional committees overseeing education have, since 2013, held dozens of hearings and solicited public feedback on rewriting the Higher Education Act. Before leaving Congress, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democrat, in 2014 introduced a full rewrite of the law, which was largely a wish list of Democratic priorities, focusing, for instance, on clamping down heavily on for-profit colleges.
House Republicans in 2014 also introduced and passed several smaller higher education bills, which focused on expanding competency-based education, boosting student loan counseling and changing the type of data available to prospective college students.
“I don’t see any real possibility of the House and Senate passing two bills, reconciling them together and sending something to the president.”
-- Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
At the beginning of 2015, the Republican chairs of both education committees indicated that they planned to push ahead on rewriting the Higher Education Act.
Alexander said last year that he planned to have the Senate vote on a higher education bill by the end of 2015. But he has been less committal this year in describing his plans on higher education.
Asked whether Alexander would introduce a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this year, Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman, said in an email that the senator “is focused on finding a path forward to get a result for students and is talking with [his Democratic counterpart, Washington Senator Patty] Murray on ways to do that.”
An aide to Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said that she "will be continuing her conversation with Senator Alexander and members of the committee on the path forward on the Higher Education Act reauthorization," adding that "reducing college costs and the burden of student debt will continue to be a major priority for Democrats in the coming year."
On the House side, Representative John Kline of Minnesota, who is leaving Congress at the beginning of next year, has previously said his approach to overhauling the Higher Education Act was to work on a series of smaller bills that deal with individual issues.
Lauren Aronson, a spokeswoman for the House Republicans on the committee, said in an email last week that renewing the Higher Education Act “remains one of the committee’s leading priorities” but did not say whether the lawmakers would introduce a bill this year.
“I don’t see any real possibility of the House and Senate passing two bills, reconciling them together and sending something to the president,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “The better question is: Will we actually see bills introduced in the committees? That, to me, would be progress.”
The last comprehensive rewrite of the Higher Education Act was in 2008, during the George W. Bush administration. Many programs in the 846-page law expired in the fall of 2014 but have been continued either through automatic extensions or other congressional action.
The federal Perkins Loan program is a notable exception. When authorization for Perkins lapsed last fall, lawmakers, after lobbying by colleges and universities, scrambled to reach a compromise to extend it for two years. The fight was a preview of some of the tensions over simplifying student aid programs that will likely crop up as lawmakers considering more sweeping changes to the entire Higher Education Act.
Further impeding a comprehensive overhaul of the Higher Education Act this year are some of the Obama administration’s regulatory and executive priorities that Republicans have sharply criticized. House Republicans in 2014 said that those actions, such as tighter regulations on for-profit colleges, were interfering with their work on rewriting the Higher Education Act.
For its part, the Obama administration has said in recent months that policy makers should be focused more intently on holding colleges more accountable for whether their students finish their degrees and are able to get good jobs.
Asked about the department’s Higher Education Act reauthorization priorities, Denise Horn, a department spokeswoman, pointed to former Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s speech last summer in which he called for a greater focus on student outcomes.
Horn also said department officials “look forward to continuing to work with Congress to build on our historic investments in college access and affordability, and to make changes that will help ensure that more students are not just going to college but graduating with a degree that sets them up for success.”
The Path Forward
Even though many view reauthorization of the Higher Education Act as a dead idea for at least this year, that’s not to say that lawmakers will not make any changes to higher education policy in the coming months or years. One possibility is that lawmakers would pass smaller, less ambitious bills in areas that have wider bipartisan support, like simplifying student aid programs and federal loan repayment options.
Another possibility is that lawmakers or the next president will seek to pass more ambitious higher education changes by attaching them to moving legislation or adopting them through the budget process.
Some of the most drastic changes to federal higher education policy in recent years, for instance, have occurred outside of comprehensive rewrites of the Higher Education Act, such as the switch to 100 percent federal direct lending, which was passed alongside President Obama’s health care law in 2010.
Regardless of those possibilities, though, there are significant areas of disagreement over the future of federal higher education policy that lawmakers will have to hammer out. Even on concepts for which there is agreement in concept -- like financial aid simplification and risk sharing and greater accountability for colleges -- putting those ideas into legislative text will likely prove difficult.
“I do think we’ll see some legislative language and more people showing their cards,” said Draeger. “At least then we’ll have something we can work with and react to.”