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Alexander Releases Narrow Higher Ed Package

September 27, 2019
 
 

U.S. senator Lamar Alexander released a package of bills Thursday that would narrowly update the Higher Education Act, including how financial aid is awarded to low-income students.

There appears to be little chance that the Tennessee Republican's legislation moves forward. At the same time, his opposition to the FUTURE Act, which would renew $255 million in annual funding for minority-serving institutions for two years, means that money is likely to expire before a Sept. 30 deadline.

The 169-page bill fleshes out a proposal Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, outlined last week when he blocked the FUTURE Act from passing on a voice vote. In its place, he offered a deal that would attach long-term funding for those colleges to several proposals with bipartisan support in the Senate.

The legislation would streamline the FAFSA, simplify financial aid award letters, expand Pell Grant eligibility for students in prisons and allow Pell to be used for short-term programs, among other changes. The package would be paid for by allowing student borrowers on income-driven repayment plans to pay up to 10 percent of their discretionary income, even if the amount exceeds what they would owe under a standard repayment plan.

The proposal follows several months of talks over comprehensive legislation that have stalled without a deal. But Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the education committee, has insisted that lawmakers pass the FUTURE Act and then work on a comprehensive HEA reauthorization. And House Democrats are not likely to take up the legislation even if it did manage to pass the Senate.

In addition to streamlining the FAFSA, the Alexander legislation would rework the federal need analysis formula for low-income students. And it would automatically qualify applicants for the maximum Pell Grant if they meet certain criteria. His office estimates that another quarter million students would qualify for the grant and an additional 1.3 million would receive the maximum award.

Tweaks to some of the proposals in the package won’t give some of their advocates all they hoped for. The legislation excludes people with life sentences who are not eligible for parole from receiving Pell Grants. And it would allow for-profit colleges to access Pell Grants for short-term programs. The JOBS Act, a bipartisan bill to expand short-term Pell, had cut out for-profit programs -- a selling point for Democrats who backed the bill.

The legislation notably did not include the College Transparency Act, which would create a federal student-level data system to track college outcomes. Alexander said on the Senate floor that the bill should be part of the package, however.

The United Negro College Fund, a historically black college group that has urged lawmakers to pass the FUTURE Act, released a video this week that called out Alexander for his opposition.

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