With their attention occupied by tax reform last year, the higher education lobby had a muted response to the GOP's first crack at overhauling the student aid system and how it keeps colleges accountable.
That’s begun to change over the last month as major higher ed associations have issued forceful criticisms of the PROSPER Act, as Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have labeled their update to the Higher Education Act, while also alerting member institutions about perceived serious problems with the bill.
The timing may seem odd, with the groups only becoming engaged on the bill about a month after it advanced out of committee. But over the last few weeks, major lobby groups have had their first chance to seriously examine the legislation, which overhauls the system of federal student loans and grants and curtails benefits for graduate students in particular. The nearly 600-page bill would also scale back accountability measures introduced by the Obama administration while opening up Pell Grants to more short-term programs. The full implications of a new loan repayment benchmark for colleges, as well as a graduation-rate requirement for minority institutions that receive targeted federal funds, are unclear.
What they’ve found has prompted the groups to oppose the House bill, they said, at the same time that the associations push for a different outcome in the U.S. Senate, which is just now beginning to hold serious discussions on its own bill. Those organizations have focused their critiques of PROSPER on what they see as its implications for the affordability of a degree.
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In a January letter to House leaders, Peter McPherson, the president and CEO of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said the legislation would make college less accessible and less affordable. (McPherson is also the author of an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed today.)
“If the bill is brought to the House floor without significant changes, APLU would oppose the legislation as it would sharply increase the costs of higher education for students and make students and taxpayers more vulnerable to predatory actors and poor performing institutions and programs,” McPherson wrote.
That’s unusually strong language for an organization known for working with both parties on Capitol Hill.
The American Council on Education, meanwhile, is raising its own concerns about the bill -- both with lawmakers and its members. Terry Hartle, the group’s senior vice president for government relations and public affairs, said the PROSPER Act is "bad for students and especially bad for graduate students."
He said the bill was moved through committee in a short period of time with little opportunity for advocates, colleges and higher ed associations to weigh in or even seriously analyze its implications, while much of the sector’s energy was focused on the tax bill.
“It would be expected that people will begin to assess its impact after they’ve had a chance to look at it,” Hartle said. “So what you’ve got now are associations talking to their members. You’ve got individual institutions going over the bill with a fine-tooth comb.”
On Monday, 35 mostly liberal higher ed groups, civil rights organizations and unions sent a letter to House leaders warning that the PROSPER Act "exacerbates the increasing burden of student debt and continued inequity in higher education access and outcomes."
When the legislation made it through markup without serious organized opposition, some observers predicted that higher ed groups would shift their focus to the Senate.
But Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at New America's education policy program, said the surge in scrutiny of the legislation makes sense now. That’s both because House Republicans hope to find enough support to bring it to the floor of the chamber soon and because the sector wants to make clear to the Senate that it should take a different approach.
“The PROSPER Act went largely unchecked in committee and so that could send a signal to the Senate that some of its extreme proposals are fine, which is why I think people need to send a signal that they are not,” Laitinen said.
Preston Cooper, an education research analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said it’s wrong to portray the bill as a pure cut to student aid. As examples, he pointed to a proposed $300 Pell Grant bonus for full-time students who make progress toward a degree and a new payment cap on student loans in income-based repayment.
A Republican committee spokesman said the legislation represents a change in the status quo of higher education because that status quo is not serving students.
“Misguided policies from federal and state governments, along with institutions of higher education, have created a system that is in need of serious reforms if it is going to provide students with a high-quality education that will lead to a good-paying job and financial stability,” he said.
The spokesman said the committee would welcome feedback that aligns with the Republican vision on the Higher Education Act and would work with any organizations that bring forward productive solutions.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, has set that chamber’s education committee, which he leads, on a busy schedule to start the new year. And Alexander has talked up an ambitious target date of April for marking up legislation -- early enough that the Senate's leadership could conceivably bring a bill to the floor before this year's election season is in full swing.
(In comments to reporters, Democratic committee staff have sought to hit the brakes on that quick timeline. And after Alexander released a staff white paper on higher ed accountability last week, Senate Democrats released their principles for HEA reauthorization, which emphasize strong scrutiny of the for-profit sector in particular, a clear contrast with the chairman's position.)
Michael Dannenberg, director of strategic initiatives for policy at Education Reform Now and a former Senate education committee staffer, said moving forward on a higher ed bill before November would give Republicans an accomplishment besides tax reform to talk about on the campaign trail. An advancing proposal could also hem in Democrats in the next Congress even if it doesn’t pass in 2018, he said.
“If Alexander moves a bipartisan higher ed bill through committee, it creates a marker for next Congress no matter which party is in control,” he said.
Higher ed associations and other advocacy groups are using the PROSPER Act as a vehicle to express to the House and Senate how specific proposals would meet their priorities for a reauthorization, Dannenberg said.
Craig Lindwarm, director of congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said the group hopes to get significant changes to what it sees as the bill’s shortcomings before it makes it to the House floor.
“We take Chairwoman Foxx at her word that her intention is to push for the bill to be on the House floor as soon as possible,” he said, referring to Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the House education committee's chair. “Given the level of concerns that we have about the bill and the harm that it would do to students -- both through significant cuts to aid and making students more vulnerable to unscrupulous actors -- APLU has a duty to raise very heightened concerns.”