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The education committee of the Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives this week will begin a series of five hearings on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the law that governs federal financial aid. On Friday the committee's Democratic leadership released a paper describing their vision for updating the law, as well arguments for the continued value of a college credential and criticism for low-quality offerings from for-profit institutions.

"More than 50 years after the initial passage of the HEA, America still falls short of the law’s original promise to open the door to and extend the benefit of higher education to all students," the report said. "The next reauthorization of the HEA should aim to finally close those gaps in access, affordability and completion that continue to prevent so many students from fulfilling their greatest potential."

The law should support dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students, simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, increase grant aid for students, strengthen institutional quality and accountability, improve the postsecondary data infrastructure, and include investments in childcare and mental health services, the report said, among other proposals.

The report gives substantial space to backing bipartisan proposals to expand Pell Grant eligibility for short-term certificate programs. However, Democrats cautioned that such an expansion must guard against "weak policies that enable for-profit institutions to administer programs that result in low wages and high default rates on student loans."

They also said short-term certificate programs must be designed to be "stackable" and serve as a starting point for associate and four-year degrees. "Although not every student will want to pursue a degree beyond a certificate," the report said, "those who do should be able to apply their certificate toward a more advanced degree, especially if the certificate was funded with federal student aid."