A Call for Bipartisanship in Higher Education

Legislation introduced this week offers members of Congress an opportunity to work together for the benefit of students and families, argues Jared Polis.

July 25, 2018

In our 21st-century economy, a degree or certificate beyond a high school diploma is more necessary than ever. Education is simply too important for partisan games. Last fall, my Democratic colleagues and I on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Workforce were anticipating that, any day, we would begin the bipartisan process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. We stood ready to work with the committee’s chairwoman, Representative Virginia Foxx, and other Republicans on the committee to find consensus on legislation to make college more affordable, help Americans pay off their student debt, and bring innovation to our outdated higher education system.

Instead, the committee chose partisan politics over students. Details about the Republican proposal, later dubbed the PROSPER Act, were given to The Wall Street Journal before several members of the committee, including me, even got to see a draft. The first stone had been thrown, and the tenor was set. Democrats, and even many Republicans, would be shut out of the process.

Following the introduction of the so-called PROSPER Act, the committee held a partisan markup hearing, where 35 Democratic amendments (including six that I offered) were rejected by a recorded vote. My amendment on college transfer was one of the only bipartisan amendments adopted at the hearing. Democrats offered constructive amendments in support of widely popular policies that put students first, including those that would reinstate Public Service Loan Forgiveness, restore valuable campus-based aid and bring down interest rates on student loans. Each was rejected.

Meanwhile, Americans across the country carry an average of tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. Students every day face the decision of whether or not their college degree will be worth it, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students throughout the country attend class with fear of deportation.

I hear from folks in Colorado all the time, and they’re frustrated by what feels like constant partisan bickering in Congress. They want to see their representatives working together to solve problems, not forcing through legislation that would cut $15 billion in student aid and create a free-for-all for predatory, for-profit colleges to get fat from government handouts.

What’s more, it’s not that Congress is incapable of producing bipartisan legislation.

Last summer, I introduced the Advancing Competency-Based Education Act with Republican congressman Luke Messer of Indiana. The bill would provide flexibility for programs to move beyond the traditional semester and allow students to receive credit for what they know, not how much time they spend in a classroom. Programs like competency-based education can be especially beneficial for students with families or those who work full-time because they provide the flexibility for a student to advance at their own pace.

Bills like CBE aren’t alone. I’ve worked with Republicans and Democrats to introduce bipartisan, bicameral legislation to improve teacher preparation and professional development, increase access to dual enrollment, and make college textbooks more affordable. Each of those bills offers an innovative solution to the issue of college affordability, and each has been shut out by a closed-off, partisan process.

In 2016, Democrats and Republicans proved they can work together. The House passed several higher education bills, including my bill to reform the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The bill would allow students to complete the FAFSA form earlier, and with the option of completing it on a mobile device, making federal aid more accessible for students.

The FAFSA bill was commonsense, and there are others like it. A number of bipartisan proposals from members of Congress deserve a fair hearing and the chance to become law.

This week, House Democrats introduced the Aim Higher Act, a comprehensive rewrite of HEA that would increase access to college and certificate programs and empower schools to provide the support students need to graduate. The bill includes bipartisan proposals sponsored by Republicans and Democrats, and I’m proud to support it.

Even still, rumors are rampant that the Republicans’ higher education reauthorization may come to a floor vote this fall. Republican leaders are working furiously to cobble together votes for a hyperpartisan bill that will surely be dead on arrival in the Senate. The fact of the matter is, this is exactly the sort of thing that makes Americans and my constituents from Colorado disgusted with Washington: each side with their talking points, and congressional leadership wasting time (and taxpayer money) on a bad bill that will never become law.

It’s time to set the partisanship aside and work together for the benefit of the students and families we represent. We owe it to them to pass a bill that makes college more accessible and affordable, embraces smart innovation, and provides the support students need to complete their degree. We’ve done it before, and we should do it again. Let’s get to work.


Jared Polis is the U.S. representative for Colorado’s second congressional district and a former member of the Colorado State Board of Education.


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