With a sudden show of momentum in the U.S. Senate late this week, the renewal of the Higher Education Act seems to be moving off the back burner.
College lobbyists still place long odds on the prospect that Congress will actually finish work this year on an extension of the law governing most higher education programs. That's especially true because lawmakers' work on the law will be intertwined and, in some ways, dependent on the outcome of Congressional deliberations over the federal budget, which promises to be the thorniest it has been in a decade.
But Thursday brought a burst of activity on the Higher Education Act by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, including a hearing that was billed as a "kickoff" of its review of the law (though there was little substantive discussion of the legislation).
In addition, several Democratic senators met Thursday morning with the leaders of several dozen higher education associations to discuss their plans for the process known as "reauthorization" of the law, and another meeting is planned for today between college lobbyists and staff members for Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the Wyoming Republican who heads the Senate education committee.
The Senate panel plans to draft its version of the higher education law by June, college lobbyists and Congressional staffers say. House Republican leaders have already released a draft of their version of the legislation,  and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has a hearing scheduled next Tuesday called, "College Access: Is Government Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?”
According to aides to the Senate education panel, Thursday's hearing on "Lifelong Education Opportunities" was designed to provide a framework for the committee to use in considering not only the Higher Education Act but also dozens of other education and job training laws that the panel is due to renew over the next two years.
Enzi acknowledged that the panel faces a tough road; he noted that the committee "only got two to three reauthorizations done in the last two years, and we have 38 more to do by September," he said with a shake of the head.
Thursday's hearing featured a bunch of heavy hitters, including the U.S. secretaries of education and labor (Margaret Spellings and Elaine L. Chao, respectively) and the governors of Kansas and Kentucky, Kathleen Sebelius and Ernie Fletcher. Much of the discussion focused on the interrelationship, and frequently the collision, of the complex web of federal laws and programs that govern job training and higher education. The witnesses urged the senators in attendance (who included none of the committee's 11 Democrats) to look at the laws together rather than separately as they renew them.
"The pending reauthorizations of the of the Workforce Investment Act, Higher Education Act, Head Start, and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act present an unprecedented opportunity to align federal education laws and promote lifelong learning," said Sebelius, who heads the National Governors Association’s Education, Early Childhood and Workforce Committee.
Steve Gunderson, a former Republican Congressman from Wisconsin who now directs the Washington office of the Greystone Group, a consulting firm, even went so far as to encourage lawmakers to stitch the Higher Education Act and the two workforce laws together into one, to end the “disjoined programs and turf battles over money and responsibility.” Not likely.
What seemed far more likely after hearing the Republican senators talk, though, was that the education committee’s approach to extending the Higher Education Act will pay close attention not just to how colleges are doing at educating their students academically, but how well they are preparing them for the workforce.
Virtually every comment by the witnesses and the senators alike focused on the extent to which the American education system, lower and higher, is or is not giving the students who emerge from it the skills to work effectively in the 21st century economy, and how southeast Asia and, increasingly, Europe are beginning to catch up and even surpass the United States.
If that becomes a central focus of the Higher Education Act renewal, colleges can probably expect a push for more accountability on how successful they are at placing their students into jobs -- a thrust that might sit well with community colleges and for-profit institutions, but not so much with liberal arts colleges.