The massive federal law governing student aid needs to be simplified, allow more room for innovation, and hold colleges more accountable for student outcomes, a top U.S. Department of Education official said Wednesday.
Speaking at a New America Foundation event about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said that the federal government should have more power to hold colleges and universities accountable for academic and educational problems.
“I would love there to be more authority in the federal government to crack down on what we see as educational abuses as opposed to financial abuses or the like,” he said, citing the recently uncovered academic fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Mitchell added that any increased federal regulation of colleges should be focused on student outcomes.
“I would want to make a very bright line: if we’re going to expand, by statute, federal regulatory authority to have it be about outcomes and not processes and inputs,” he said, referencing some of the criteria that accreditors use in approving institutions.
Mitchell said he was optimistic that accountability in higher education was an issue on which there is room for consensus between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
Another Education Department priority in reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, he said, would be simplifying what has become a “convoluted” federal student aid system.
Rewriting the law, which was last updated in 2008, should be a “pretty dramatic gardening project” to streamline existing federal student loan rules and get rid of requirements that inhibit innovation in higher education, he said.
“We have this really crazy matrix of different loan programs, different loan servicers,” he said. “If we could, in the Higher Ed Act, streamline that, that would be great.”
He said that the government should “simplify or eliminate the FAFSA form” and make better use of existing sources of information on families’ financial information in determining eligibility for federal student aid.
Mitchell also said that a new Higher Education Act should restore year-round Pell Grants and provide incentives for states to maintain spending on higher education and not pass large tuition increases on to families.
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican who is expected to chair the Senate educate committee in the next Congress, has said that deregulating higher education and simplifying the FAFSA form is a priority of his in higher education policy. He’s said he wants to “start from scratch” in rewriting the Higher Education Act, to weed out requirements that he says are burdensome and have been layered on over decades.
Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who is expected to continue as chair of the House education committee, said in a video announcement Wednesday that improving the higher education system will be among his priorities in the new Congress, but did not offer any details about that plan.
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