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Virginia Foxx, a light-skinned older woman with white hair, walks in a hallway, wearing a red shirt and black blazer

North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, the Republican chairwoman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, is spearheading an effort to make college more affordable.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

Declaring that it’s time to stop ignoring the cost of college, a House committee advanced sweeping legislation that could reshape how federal dollars are doled out to students and institutions.

“As a society, it is time to face the music,” said North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, the Republican chairwoman of the education committee, in her opening remarks. “We are scamming young Americans. College prices are skyrocketing, and college value is stagnating.”

The 223-page College Cost Reduction Act passed on a party-line vote after a more than four-hour markup Wednesday that included more than 30 proposed amendments from Democrats on the committee—all of which were voted down by the majority Republicans.

Republicans said the legislation, which would put colleges on the hook when students fail to pay back their loans on time as part of a policy known as “risk-sharing,” is a much-needed and comprehensive solution to the ballooning federal student loan portfolio, which totaled $1.6 trillion at the end of 2023. Democrats countered that the bill was “not ready for prime time” and a “recipe for disaster” that would negatively impact first-generation and low-income students.

“The details are murky and no thoughtful lawmaker should vote in favor without a more thorough discussion,” said North Carolina representative Kathy Manning, a Democrat.

The bill will now head to the floor for a vote of the full House. Even if it passes that chamber, it’s unlikely to move forward in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The College Cost Reduction Act is part of the committee’s broader effort to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965, which was last updated in 2008. The bill restructures the student loan system, ending some loan types and repayment options. Additionally, it places a greater emphasis on student outcomes, sending additional federal funds to institutions with a track record of graduating low-income students and boosting their earnings.

Among other provisions, the legislation rolls back Biden administration regulations aimed at protecting borrowers and holding institutions accountable, caps the amount of federal loans a student can take out, and adds new transparency measures—including making the College Scorecard, an interactive website that launched in 2015 and provides data about institutions, permanent and authorized in federal law.

“This bill is a landmark legislative solution to the perennial problem of ballooning college costs,” said Representative Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican. “It stands on the principles that public policy should be based on postsecondary outcomes, not just inputs. And that all institutions responsible for tuition inflation should be held accountable.”

Democrats on the committee criticized the timing of Wednesday’s markup, held a little over two weeks after the bill’s public release, and asked for a hearing to dig into the legislation. Higher education associations said the rush to a markup hampered their efforts to offer meaningful feedback.

“Congress badly needs to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, but in practice it can only do so if it is moved in such a fashion as to generate a substantial measure of stakeholder buy-in,” the American Association of Community Colleges wrote in a letter of opposition. “The current proposed legislation does not meet that standard.”

The AACC and other higher education associations have expressed several concerns with the legislation, including the risk-sharing provisions and the way it would measure the value of an academic program by the earnings of its graduates.

“The value of higher education, however, encompasses more than the economic return on the student’s investment,” the American Council on Education wrote in its letter of opposition. “Simply put, value cannot be summed up in an equation.”

This attempt at a reauthorization comes as higher education faces more congressional scrutiny as well as questions about whether colleges are serving students well and providing a good return on investment. In a series of hearings over the past year, Republicans on the committee repeatedly questioned the value of higher education and made clear their preference for stronger accountability measures that apply to all types of institutions.

“This committee has shone a light on the state of higher education, and people all across America have been shocked and appalled,” said Representative Kevin Kiley, a California Republican. “It’s really provided this moment of reckoning for higher education in America … This bill is fundamental to the reforms that are needed.”

Wednesday’s markup highlighted long-standing and familiar divisions between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to higher education accountability and improving the federal student aid system. Republicans favor accountability measures that apply to all types of institutions, while Democrats say for-profit colleges should face stricter rules. Democrats, who rolled out their own plan for reform Tuesday, want to open federal aid to more students and make it easier for them to pay back loans, while Republicans want more strings attached to federal funding for institutions.

Florida representative Aaron Bean, a Republican, said the bill would essentially make colleges co-signers of student loans—a change he said would force colleges to partner with students and ensure they can repay their loans.

“Tuition rates in colleges and universities have risen faster than almost any other sector of our economy, because they know it’s a cash cow,” Bean said. “So Dr. Foxx, I salute you for not putting a Band-Aid on student loan debt. We need fundamental change if you’re going to fix the problem.”

Bean added that the bill is something that committee members can tout back home in their districts. “Enough for this student loan giveaway,” he said. “We’re sick of it. We want this responsibility. We want accountability. And that’s what this bill does.”

Sharp Exchanges

Ahead of the markup, the bill’s sponsors updated the legislation to restore the federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, which provides direct aid to financially needy students and was cut from the initial draft. They eliminated a provision that would have created a boosted Pell Grant program, called Pell Plus, for students in their third and fourth years of study.

Virginia representative Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the committee, said during the markup that the Pell Plus section was the only provision in the bill that made a meaningful investment in the program.

“Now we can see the bill for what it truly is: a limitation on higher education access and a decrease in affordability,” he said.

Democrats on the committee largely agreed that student debt loads are too high and completion rates are too low. But they argued that the legislation wouldn’t reduce college costs but instead would drive students into the private student loan market, undermine the federal accreditation system and fuel divisive culture wars. One provision would bar accrediting agencies from creating standards based on any “ideology, belief, or viewpoint.”

“Prohibiting ideology would prevent accreditors from judging an institution’s commitment to the scientific method,” said Representative Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut Democrat and former K-12 teacher. “Additionally, the bill would require agencies to accredit colleges with faith-restricted curricula, even if the restrictions directly conflict with an accreditor’s commitment to free inquiry, the scientific method and academic freedom.”

Scott noted that the bill does include pieces that have bipartisan support, such as authorizing the Postsecondary Student Success Grant program and eliminating interest capitalization—a process in which unpaid interest is added to the principal balance of a loan.

“But, on balance, the havoc this bill would wreak on our higher education system, and the pain it would inflict on students and families, far outweigh any minor improvements the bill may make,” Scott said.

Throughout the hearing, Democrats and Republicans accused one another of putting forth proposals that wouldn’t actually lower the cost of college.

For example, New Mexico representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat, proposed an amendment that would waive two years of tuition at community colleges, tribal colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions. She wanted the free college plan to replace the bill’s performance-based funding grant program, arguing that money should go directly to students.

Foxx shot back that the free college plan would be a “handout to millionaire families and noncitizens at the expense of hardworking Americans.”

Democrats also took issue with the bill’s provisions that would end a number of consumer protection regulations put in place by the Biden administration and prevent the education secretary from issuing similar rules. They proposed amendments to restore rules that protect student borrowers when their institutions close or if they are misled by their college, among others.

“Removing these safeguards would expose students and taxpayers to waste, fraud and abuse,” Scott said. “If my colleagues want to return to the [Betsy] DeVos era of radical deregulation, then they should remember that students and taxpayers bore the brunt of the costs.”

Foxx repeatedly argued that the executive branch has overreached and created costly regulations for colleges and universities.

“Congress needs to do its job, and that’s precisely what we’re doing here,” Foxx said. “We cannot let the executive branch trample the legislative branch and our congressional authority any longer.”

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