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Representative Virginia Foxx is planning to leverage the decline in public perception of higher education to usher in a new era of stronger accountability for the nation’s colleges and universities in her role as chairwoman of the House education committee.
This is “exactly the right time” to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965, Foxx said in a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed. The last reauthorization was in 2008, and the law is supposed to be renewed every five years. Foxx and other lawmakers have tried over the years to pass comprehensive higher education legislation—only for those efforts to fail—and observers are skeptical that meaningful higher education bills can pass both chambers during this session of Congress.
Still, Foxx is hopeful that she can get a bill across the finish line before the end of next year, even though Democrats control the Senate and White House. That’s because, she said, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in the higher education system and fueled drops in public opinion about higher education.
“The reason I think we can do it this year is because higher ed has never been held in such low esteem as it is now,” she said. “In the past, we had members who were a little shy about doing it, because their presidents of their universities would come to them and say, ‘No, no, no, you can’t bother us,’ and they would be intimidated by them. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case this year.”
In her first two months as chair, Foxx has organized one hearing on the “crises” in American education, filed numerous requests for information with the Department of Education and called attention to the cost and value of a college degree. She’s also shown a willingness to bring the culture wars that have been waged in schools and on college campuses into the hearing room. The committee’s first markup session Wednesday focused on bills that would prevent transgender students from playing on school or college teams that match their gender identity and would create a Parents’ Bill of Rights with regard to children’s education.
“Those are not related to issues of cost or quality or access or innovative practices in higher education,” said Jon Fansmith, senior vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. “Those are very divisive culture war issues that are being raised.”
Still, Fansmith said that it’s good for higher education that Foxx returned as chair.
“She clearly cares deeply about a lot of issues in higher education,” she said.
Lobbyists and higher ed watchers familiar with the committee’s work acknowledge that Foxx likely wants to pass substantive legislation but cast doubt on her ability to move a reauthorization through Congress, pointing to the need for bipartisan buy-in and the politics of the Republican conference, in which members appear more interested in oversight and messaging bills. The committee’s oversight role and Foxx’s megaphone as chair likely will have the most impact on the national conversation about higher ed, they said.
“The narrative about the value and cost of higher education is something that we care a lot about,” said Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “We are very concerned about the narrative and want to make sure that we’re articulating that value proposition appropriately.”
Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is one of Foxx’s top priorities, along with reauthorizing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which is aimed at helping job seekers access employment, education and training. Foxx was a key leader in 2014 when the act was last updated.
“She cares about higher education policy and wants to do more substantive legislating,” Lindwarm said, adding that Foxx also has to serve the political goals of the caucus as committee chair. “Is HEA reauthorization really a priority for the caucus?”
A Familiar Face
The 79-year-old North Carolina Republican has said that she’s the only one in Congress with the legislative and higher ed experience to enact certain reforms. First elected to the House in 2004, she’s developed a reputation as a staunch conservative. In the higher ed realm, she’s a proponent of for-profit institutions and fewer regulations, as well as a fierce opponent of the College Transparency Act, which would’ve given students and families more information about college programs and outcomes by requiring colleges and universities to report certain data.
Before serving in Congress, Foxx was a sociology instructor at Appalachian State University and president of Mayland Community College. She’s a longtime member of the House education committee, which she first chaired during the Trump administration.
“Dr. Foxx has an extraordinary knowledge of federal higher education policy,” said David Baime, senior vice president for governmental relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “We know how strongly committed she is to workforce Pell, and we are counting on Congress to enact legislation along these lines.”
Foxx already has sponsored legislation this session to expand Pell Grant to programs that run for at least eight weeks. The policy initiative known as short-term Pell or workforce Pell has been a priority for several higher ed groups, including AACC, for several years, but whether for-profit institutions would be included in the expansion has been a sticking point. Foxx wants for-profits included.
Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a bipartisan nonprofit that works to improve outcomes for students, said she’s hopeful for Foxx’s tenure as chair, given her focus on community college students and better connecting the world of higher education and the workforce.
“That’s where we see a lot of need for today’s students,” she said.
As far as legislation, Peller and others are doubtful that a full reauthorization will pass, but she’s looking for moments that fit between HEA and WIOA, such as short-term Pell or policies for those who have some college education but no credential.
“I’m encouraged to try to find the things that don’t fit neatly in either reauthorization,” she said.
Passing education-related legislation will require Foxx and other Republicans to work with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and the Biden administration. Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
On Sanders, Foxx said she’s hoping that “people who are to the far right and far left come together” and find common ground.
Sanders hasn’t said much about his higher education priorities yet, though he’s a vocal advocate for free community college. The committee’s top Republican, Louisiana senator Dr. Bill Cassidy, did briefly talk about reauthorizing the Higher Education Act during his remarks at the committee’s first meeting.
On the Biden administration, Foxx said she’s talked to Secretary Miguel Cardona many times but diverging philosophical positions make it difficult to find common ground with officials.
“I get along with them fine, but their worldview is so different from the worldview of the majority of the people in this country that it’s really difficult to understand where they’re coming from,” she said.
Higher Ed Accountability
When Foxx last led the committee, she proposed ending some loan-repayment plans, adding tying federal funding to outcomes for some institutions and rolling back regulations governing for-profit colleges as part of a bill that would’ve reauthorized the HEA. That bill passed the committee but never received a floor vote.
Since Foxx last held the committee’s gavel, the national conversation about higher education has shifted, in part because of the pandemic. Higher education also has become a wedge issue as voters become more polarized and conservative lawmakers have taken steps to remake state universities.
“The public is much more vocal now than it has been in the past,” she said. “You’re seeing trustees who are aware of the problems in the colleges and universities, and that’s a huge deal. Trustees are now speaking up and forming groups, particularly on speech issues, but also on accountability issues. I am very, very pleased with the responses you’re seeing in the general public.”
Foxx said buy-in from the entire Republican conference will be key to passing comprehensive higher education legislation. She also hopes to get Democrats onboard, but she’s not optimistic.
“Because, for some reason, Democrats don’t seem to want accountability, and that is a major focus for us,” Foxx said.
For Foxx, holding colleges and universities accountable means requiring institutions to give students and parents more information up front about the cost of attendance, graduation rates, job prospects and earnings.
“People can vote with their feet,” she said.
A new accountability system also could have a provision for risk-sharing, in which colleges and universities would be on the hook for loans that students can’t pay back, she said.
“If they’re admitting students who can’t make it, who don’t pay back their loans, we think the school should have to pay some of that money back,” she said.
Higher ed associations opposed the risk-sharing concept when she proposed it in 2017.
On the push at the state level against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at public universities, Foxx said she wants colleges to have freedom to decide whom they are going to hire, but that doesn’t mean public colleges should require statements from prospective employees about their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Government has no business dictating that kind of thing, and there really should not be a penalty for people holding a different point of view than what some people hold,” she said. “That’s all about academic freedom, but we see that the left believes in academic freedom when it goes one way.”
More broadly, Foxx said she wants the country’s education systems to be seen as the best in the world.
“Frankly, right now, that’s eroding,” she said. “People are not looking to the United States as much as they have in the past for having the best education institutions in the world, and that’s troubling to me.”