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Representative Bobby Scott, chairman of the House education committee

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House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a new bill to overhaul the Higher Education Act, which doubles down on key provisions of a 2018 proposal to update the landmark law.

The plan, dubbed the College Affordability Act, would boost the size of the Pell Grant, enact a federal-state partnership to make community colleges free, streamline student loan repayment and codify Obama-era college accountability rules.

The bill would restore the gainful-employment rule, repealed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, which was designed to weed out programs that produce graduates who are overburdened with debt. And it would restore borrower-defense regulations her department overhauled this year. It also would close the so-called 90-10 loophole -- a priority for several veterans' groups.

While the Democrats’ proposal last year largely was a messaging bill dropped ahead of the midterm elections, this time they hold the majority and have a chance to pass the legislation out of the chamber, providing a test case for the approach of Representative Bobby Scott, the Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the House education committee.

Scott argued Tuesday that his framework is a “down payment” on tuition-free college, but one that could be passed with a Republican-held Senate and White House.

“We believe this modest approach can actually pass and become law,” he said at a news conference to unveil the bill.

Mixed Reviews From Higher Ed Groups

Whether the legislation garners significant support from higher ed groups or student advocates is another matter. The bill could divide some sectors of higher education, particularly two-year and four-year colleges. The College Affordability Act would invest significant new money in community colleges through a federal-state partnership; hundreds of millions in new federal funds would go to states that opt to make two-year colleges tuition-free.

Students attending any college would receive a larger Pell Grant -- the bill calls for raising the maximum grant by $500 -- but four-year institutions wouldn’t see new spending on affordability to match what community colleges would receive.

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, said two-year institutions receive the fewest resources per student of all colleges. A move by the federal government to encourage more spending on the sector would be “an extremely positive development,” he said.

But Craig Lindwarm, vice president for congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said the bill could create incentives for states to spend more on community colleges at the expense of four-year colleges, where the majority of college students are enrolled.

“While community colleges provide a critical role in society and within public higher education, so do four-year institutions,” he said. “And a federal-state partnership should lift all of public higher education.”

Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Access Network, noted that the $500 boost in the Pell Grant would still leave the grant well short of covering even a third of the cost of attendance at an typical four-year public institution.

“It seems like the answer to the four-year affordability problem is for everyone to start at two-year schools,” she said.

Given the low transfer rates for students moving from community colleges to four-year institutions, she said that approach was concerning.

Impact on Other Federal Programs

The bill would add new support for four-year college students through the federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, Democratic committee staff said, and it would rework the Federal Work-Study formula to direct money to more low-income students.

The College Affordability Act also would make the federal student loan program more generous for student borrowers. The bill would eliminate loan origination fees, give borrowers the option to refinance loans at lower rates and consolidate income-driven repayment options.

The bill has received endorsements from Third Way, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Veterans Education Success, the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the American Federation of Teachers.

Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education at The Education Trust, praised the bill's extension of Pell Grant eligibility to undocumented and incarcerated students. He said Congress should build on the proposal by doing even more to restore the purchasing power of Pell. 

(Note: This story was updated to clarify the position of the Education Trust on the bill.) 

Ernest Ezeugo, policy director at the National Campus Leadership Council, which represents student leaders at college campuses, said the bill makes some needed improvements on financial aid and civil rights.

"While we wish some of these provisions were stronger, this proposal is a promising starting place to advance student-centric policies," he said.

The bill is expected to cost about $400 billion over 10 years, Democratic House staff members said, although it hasn’t received a score from the Congressional Budget Office. Staff members said Scott is working with other House committees to identify potential revenue sources to pay for new spending.

Figuring out how to pay for the changes in the 1,200-page legislation could emerge as the biggest obstacle to getting the bill onto the House floor for a vote before the end of the year, as Scott hopes.

Even if the bill were to pass the House, it’s unlikely to be the decisive step in reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Senate lawmakers are discussing a bipartisan deal to reauthorize the law. Those talks have been stalled for months, though, over controversial provisions such as college accountability and federal guidelines for handling of campus sexual misconduct.

Scott’s legislation does share some key provisions with higher ed legislation recently released by Senator Lamar Alexander, the GOP chairman of the Senate education committee. Both proposals would streamline the FAFSA, lift the ban on federal aid for incarcerated students and open Pell Grant eligibility to short-term higher ed programs (although the House bill excludes for-profit colleges). Scott also included the College Transparency Act, which would create a federal student-level data system to track college outcomes, in his bill. Alexander recently signed on as a co-sponsor of a Senate version of that legislation.

Democrats in the Senate have rejected the Alexander proposal because it doesn’t address some of the most controversial provisions of the Higher Education Act, including college accountability.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said House Democrats will have to grapple with how to pay for the bill as well as controversy over a bigger federal role in higher education.

“They’ve got some good ideas in here, some that are bad and some that are just plain ugly,” he said.

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