House and Senate Offer Different Visions for Renewal of Higher Education Act

June 25, 2014

House Republicans and Senate Democrats unveiled dueling visions of higher-education reform on Tuesday, with both groups arguing that their approach would make college more affordable, help students reach more-informed decisions, and hold institutions accountable to students and taxpayers.

In the Senate, Democrats released a summary of legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act that they plan to introduce on Wednesday. As reported last week in The Chronicle, the bill would create several new grant programs aimed at reducing college costs, crack down on for-profit colleges, and take steps to reduce student-loan defaults.

Not to be outdone, Republicans in the House of Representatives issued a white paper outlining their priorities for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, and promised legislation to that end later this week. Their plan calls for radically simplifying federal student-aid and loan-repayment programs, encouraging online and competency-based learning, and easing the regulatory burden on colleges.

Broadly speaking, the Senate Democrats favor top-down accountability for colleges, while the House Republicans prefer a limited federal role. Their plan would block President Obama’s planned college-rating system, while rolling back recent "program integrity" rules that expanded state oversight over colleges, defined the credit hour, and conditioned a college’s receipt of student-loan funds on its graduates’ "gainful employment."

The Senate proposal also focuses more on consumer protection, with provisions that would standardize financial-aid-award letters, provide more upfront disclosures to borrowers, and restore the ability to discharge student loans in bankruptcy.

But there are some areas of agreement between the approaches. Both would streamline student-loan repayment plans, revamp teacher-preparation programs, and make Pell Grants available year-round. The lawmakers also agree on the need to improve students’ financial literacy, slim down the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and simplify the information provided to prospective students.

Even so, the two chambers are taking opposite approaches to renewing the nation’s largest higher-education bill, and they aren’t likely to reach a compromise on it during an election year. Senate Democrats are offering a comprehensive bill; House Republicans are taking a piecemeal approach.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Rep. John P. Kline Jr. of Minnesota, chairman of the House education committee, said Republicans felt they would have a better chance of passing their bills through the Senate with a "step by step" approach to reauthorization.

"We have a lot of difficulty in sometimes getting our colleagues on the other side of the Capitol to move legislation," he said. "We’re going to get at things where we think we can get bipartisan, bicameral support."

But House Democrats dismissed the Republican plan, saying it would do little to make college more affordable or student-loan repayment more manageable.

"The Republicans’ small-potatoes ‘priorities’ clearly aren’t a real effort to address real problems like skyrocketing tuitions or massive student-loan debt," said a spokeswoman for Democrats on the committee, "and they won’t make a significant difference in students’ ability to get into, complete, or pay for their education."