Government

In 3 Reports, Senate Republicans Hint at Higher-Ed Agenda

March 24, 2015

Senate Republicans, gearing up for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, gave strong hints about their priorities in a trio of white papers released Monday.

The papers, which examine accreditation, consumer information, and risk-sharing, are meant as conversation-starters and stop short of endorsing any particular policy proposals. Still, they show that lawmakers are considering significant changes in the ways colleges are evaluated and held accountable for student outcomes.

The paper on accreditation, for example, raises the possibility of decoupling accreditation and federal student aid. (Read more about that here.)

The paper on consumer information, meanwhile, opens the door to the creation of a federal "unit record" database for tracking students — something Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has strongly opposed in the past. Among the "concepts up for debate," says the paper, are the creation of a federal unit-record system with "limited student level measures" of labor-market outcomes and "strict privacy protections."

The paper offers two options for such a system: limiting it to student-aid recipients — who are already in federal databases — or creating an exception to federal privacy law that would "allow some new student-level data to be collected for all students," including those who don’t receive federal aid.

The risk-sharing paper explores ways Congress might give colleges more "skin in the game" when it comes to student borrowing. Among them: requiring colleges to remit a portion of defaulted dollars to the Department of Education, and imposing new sanctions on colleges with high rates of borrowers who default.

An aide to Mr. Alexander stressed that the proposals contained in the papers represent "a menu of options," adding that "the Senator is not advocating for one avenue or another."

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at kelly.field@chronicle.com. Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.