WASHINGTON -- Senator Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, chose one of the most prominent conservative think tanks in the nation's capital to lay out his vision for overhauling the Higher Education Act.
But much of the Tennessee Republican’s speech appeared designed to win over Democrats skeptical that they could work with the GOP on a comprehensive higher ed bill. Alexander said his top priorities for a bill to renew the massive higher education law are streamlining the application for federal student aid, simplifying student loan repayment and holding colleges accountable for student loan repayment rates -- each one reflecting established principles for the senator.
He rattled off 10 different bills already introduced in the Senate with bipartisan support that address those priorities and could be incorporated into broader higher ed legislation.
“In my conversations with Democrat and Republican senators, I have found a remarkable degree of bipartisan consensus about the directions we should take to make college affordable and make students’ degrees worth their time and money,” Alexander said. “Of course, there will be differences of opinion, and if there are, we will resolve them the traditional way: by voting.”
Removing barriers to completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and simplifying loan repayment options will garner support from the right and the left alike.
But Alexander will encounter much more resistance from Democrats over a push to replace gainful employment, a signature Obama administration accountability rule aimed at career education programs, with the new loan repayment metric. And his comments did not directly address the long-term prospects of Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that became a flashpoint of a recent reauthorization fight in the House.
Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said she was pleased that Alexander had made reauthorizing the HEA a priority and that he had acknowledged the serious challenges facing students and their families.
“I am committed to working with Chairman Alexander and Democrats and Republicans on our Committee and off to tackle the tough issues in higher education -- including affordability, access, accountability, and campus safety,” she said in a statement. “This is a moment for us to step up and do the hard work of negotiating a comprehensive reauthorization that truly works for students, families, and borrowers, and I hope we can remain committed to tackling the tough issues to get that done.”
Streamlining How Students Get Aid and Pay for College
Alexander said he wants to cut the 108 questions on the FAFSA application down to two dozen -- a step that college-access experts have said could lead two million additional students each year to finish the process and receive aid.
“The cumbersome FAFSA is one major impediment to low-income students who want to go to college,” he said.
His proposal to streamline the repayment system for borrowers would offer two options: a standard 10-year repayment plan and an income-based repayment plan that would automatically deduct a set percentage of a borrower’s income from their paycheck.
“This new option should end the nightmare that many students have of never being able to afford their student loan repayments,” he said.
The concept of automatically deducting loan payments -- which proponents say would be akin to a payroll tax -- has been around for half a decade. Some observers question the feasibility of paycheck withholding as a mechanism to handle student loan payments. But tackling the FAFSA application and loan repayment has support from progressive groups as well as Democrats in Congress.
And Alexander endorsed other bipartisan higher ed priorities, like expanding Pell Grants to incarcerated students and expanding data on student outcomes with the College Transparency Act.
But his proposal to install a new accountability system for all colleges based on student loan repayment rates drew immediate skepticism from some prominent higher ed advocates. Alexander said the system would “simplify and expand” what the gainful-employment rule does now. The Obama administration issued that rule to hold career education programs accountable for producing graduates with debt they can’t repay.
But rather than measuring a ratio of students’ debt to income, as gainful employment did, Alexander’s proposal would measure borrowers’ progress repaying their debt. And it would apply to every program at every college, regardless of the type of institution.
“His proposal to use student loan repayment rates to identify low-performing colleges is worthy of discussion, but not at the cost of losing important existing protections,” said James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. “More work is needed to make college more affordable by investing in Pell Grants, working with states to bring down college costs and building on proven accountability rules that protect students against unaffordable debts.”
A new higher ed law has been long overdue. Congress last reauthorized the HEA in 2008 and then extended the law in 2013 with few changes.
Alexander said last year that he wanted to make quick progress on HEA reauthorization as well. But after a series of hearings by his committee on higher ed, negotiations between the GOP and Senate Democrats never became serious despite broad consensus on items like simplifying the financial aid process.
A white paper released by Alexander’s office last year illustrated how far apart Republicans and Democrats were on accountability. And it suggested existing rules were unfair to for-profits. The paper specifically suggested doing away with the 90-10 rule, which limits the amount of an institution’s revenue can come from federal sources, and the gainful employment rule.
While negotiations never got serious in the Senate last year, a Republican proposal to overhaul the HEA in the House, dubbed the PROSPER Act, failed to garner enough support for a floor vote after a campaign by higher ed groups to stop the legislation. Much of the opposition to the bill focused on its elimination of Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
Congressional Democrats later introduced their own higher ed proposal that essentially rebutted the major proposals of the GOP legislation. After retaking the House in November, Democrats said they would move forward with a new version of their own higher ed bill.