Lamar Alexander Wants to Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

T.J. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, is the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. If the Republicans control the Senate after Election Day, he will become its chairman.
November 03, 2014

Ask the average American to describe Senator Lamar Alexander, and they’ll probably mention the red-and-black plaid shirt that became the senator’s trademark when he campaigned for Tennessee's governorship in the late 1970s.

Ask the average college lobbyist or education aide, and they’ll paint a different picture: Lamar standing beside a tower of boxes stuffed with regulations, railing against the burden those rules impose on colleges. Or this image: Lamar waving the 10-page paper federal student-aid application, appealing for a shorter form.

For years, the Republican senator has been trotting out those two props in an effort to persuade his colleagues to roll back regulations and simplify, simplify, simplify student aid. And for years, the regulations and programs have kept on multiplying.

Now, with Republicans poised to reclaim the Senate in Tuesday’s elections, Mr. Alexander may finally be in a position to change things. As the presumptive chair of the Senate committee that oversees education, he would control the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the major law governing student aid. Already, he’s drafted legislation to shrink the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, and to reduce the overall number of student-aid programs. He’s formed a commission to identify redundant regulations, and he's talked of "starting from scratch" on the reauthorization bill.

"My principal goal in higher education is to deregulate it," the senator said in an email interview. (For more of my Q&A with Mr. Alexander, click here.)

That mostly pleases colleges, which look at his unusually strong résumé—including stints as a university president and as secretary of education—and see a rare Republican ally.

"He understands the burden of federal regulation because he was a college president," said Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "He understands how much it is driving up college pricing."

But not everyone is sold on the Alexander agenda. Financial-aid administrators worry that oversimplification could backfire. Student groups fear that fewer student-aid programs would mean less money over all. And critics say his opposition to President Obama’s college-ratings plan and "gainful employment" rule to regulate career colleges—which he would probably try to block—would give colleges a free pass on student outcomes.

"He’s clearly very smart and very engaged," said Kevin Carey, director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation. "He’s almost surely the most influential Republican in Congress when it comes to higher education." (Mr. Carey has been a contributing writer for The Chronicle.)

But the senator "has become a chief defender of liberal college groups that want a lot of government money and no accountability for how they spend it," Mr. Carey said. "That is an odd place for a conservative Republican to be."

A History in Higher Education

Then again, Mr. Alexander has spent time in a number of places that are unusual among Republican senators.

He was born in 1940 to a kindergarten teacher and an elementary-school principal, and raised in Maryville, Tenn. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1962 and earned a degree from New York University’s law school three years later.

He was elected governor of Tennessee in 1978, after a campaign in which he walked across the state wearing his signature plaid shirt. One of his first acts in office was to create a state ombudsman, who was charged with cutting government red tape. Under his watch, Tennessee became the first state to adopt merit-based pay for teachers.

After leaving office, he became president of the University of Tennessee, a position he held for three years, until 1991, when President George H.W. Bush tapped him to be secretary of education.

At first, colleges were excited to have one of their own in the administration. But the enthusiasm waned just a month after his confirmation, when Mr. Alexander delayed recognition of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a regional accreditor, over its diversity policy.

In a letter explaining his decision, Mr. Alexander argued that the accreditor’s practice of evaluating the diversity of faculty and student bodies could "undermine institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and could in fact lessen variety among the nation’s colleges and universities."

Less than six months later, he made another decision that alienated some colleges, recognizing the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools—an accreditor of colleges that teach the doctrine of biblical inerrancy—over the objections of his own advisory board.

In both cases, higher-education critics accused the Bush administration of injecting politics into the accreditation process.

The final straw, for some colleges, was the secretary’s proposal to ban most race-based scholarships. Critics saw the plan, which was never finalized, as an attempt to score political points with conservatives.

Mr. Alexander eventually recognized Middle States after the accreditor made its diversity policy optional. But his doubts about accreditation persisted. In letters to his advisory board, he worried that accreditors wielded too much power; that the groups were imposing their social views on colleges; and that the protracted federal approval process for accreditors was stifling competition.

He also warned that some accreditors of for-profit colleges were failing to protect students from shoddy programs—a warning Democrats have recently revived. At one point he even proposed eliminating the requirement that institutions be accredited to receive federal student aid.

Meanwhile, the secretary won few fans with his budget requests, which generally sought to hold spending level on student aid and to tighten eligibility for Pell Grants. In 1991 he proposed ending Pell Grants for students with poor grades; a year later he suggested that the grants be extended only to students who maintained a GPA of at least 2.0. Congress rejected both ideas, and the program’s shortfall grew to $2-billion by 1993.

When Mr. Alexander left office that year, college advocates struggled to identify his top higher-education accomplishments. Some felt he had neglected higher education, devoting most of his attention to the president’s agenda to reform elementary and secondary schools.

"There was not much new, there was not much exciting, and there was not much totally positive that came out from Secretary Alexander," Joel Packer, who was then a lobbyist with the National Education Association, said at the time.

Twenty years later, some of Mr. Alexander’s past critics acknowledge that his policies, unpopular as they were at the time, presaged broader shifts in thinking about diversity and affirmative action. Since then, the courts have placed limits on the use of race in scholarship decisions, and accreditors have become more nuanced in their diversity assessments.

"Over time," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, "the direction he began is certainly the direction public policy has moved."

To Tinker or Transform?

These days you’re more likely to hear the senator defending accreditors than attacking them. At recent hearings he has pushed back against Democrats' concerns that the accreditation system is plagued by conflicts of interest. The peer-review system, he argues, is fundamentally sound.

"Academic people are independent, shall we say," he said at a 2013 hearing. "They are skeptics by nature."

Still, he worries that the federal government is asking accreditors to do too much. He’d like them to spend less time on regulatory compliance and more on evaluating student outcomes.

But if history is a guide, he’s not likely to dictate what those outcomes should be, or how accreditors should verify that colleges are meeting them. When Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings tried doing that, in 2007, it was Mr. Alexander—a senator by then—who added language to the 2008 Higher Education Act blocking the department from moving forward with its regulations.

"He has gone on record that things have gone awry a bit, with the department being overzealous in its control of accreditors," said Vickie L. Schray, a lobbyist for Bridgepoint Education, who helped write the blocked regulations when she was a senior adviser at the Education Department.

A bigger question is whether he might try to tell accreditors what they can’t measure, much as he did with Middle States 20 years ago.

As for whether Mr. Alexander would revive his bid to decouple accreditation and eligibility for federal aid: Some observers, among them Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, would like to see him try. But others think that's a long shot.

"You would have to go somewhere Republicans don’t want to go, which is increasing the power of the federal government," said Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

A senior Alexander aide said his boss was keeping his options open, treating accreditation as a "blank sheet"—an approach he’s taking to the entire reauthorization bill.

"He’s open to everything from minimal changes to a radical revamp," said the aide, who requested anonymity to keep the focus on his boss. "Maybe we need to tinker; maybe we need to totally transform."

Tuesday’s elections come almost exactly a year after Mr. Alexander announced the creation of a bipartisan task force on the deregulation of colleges. The group, made up of two Democrats, two Republicans, and several college lobbyists, is expected to wrap up its work by the end of the year.

In the meantime, the senator has focused on streamlining the federal student-aid system. In June he floated a draft bill that would reduce the Fafsa from a 10-page form to a postcard seeking just two pieces of information: family size and income. It would consolidate an array of federal grant and loan programs and repayment plans, limit borrowing by part-time students, and allow colleges to set lower borrowing limits for certain groups of students (something community colleges have been seeking for years).

In recent weeks Mr. Alexander has been touting the plan at campaign events in Tennessee, telling constituents that it would make college more affordable. "Each year, more than 10,000 Nashville-area families lose out on federal financial aid for college because they’re discouraged by an overly complicated form," he said in October.

But the proposal has drawn a cool reception from student-aid administrators, who worry that oversimplification will force states and institutions to create their own forms to assess need. When the senator unfurled the paper Fafsa at the annual meeting of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, they reminded him that the vast majority of students now fill out the form online, where they can bypass many questions.

"It’s like debating VHS and Betamax in an era of digital video," said Justin Draeger, president of the association.

Aid administrators and others are also wary of his plan to consolidate student-aid programs.

"It seems like a backdoor way to cut student aid," said a Senate Democratic aide.

In an interview, Senator Alexander defended the bill, saying it had the support of many financial-aid administrators.

"We may not be able to reduce the number of questions to two, but surely we can be closer to two than 108," he wrote.

Mr. Consistent

Colleges have welcomed Mr. Alexander's opposition to President Obama's accountability agenda. But they get nervous when they hear the senator talk of "risk sharing" and having "skin in the game"—phrases that could translate into making colleges bear some of the cost when their students drop out or default.

The senior aide to Mr. Alexander said the senator believes that the risk of government lending to students needs to be more evenly distributed among students, colleges, and taxpayers. Now, he said, taxpayers bear too much of that risk.

"We’ve seen that institutions are a little divorced from the success of their students," he said.

If Republicans take the Senate, vaulting Mr. Alexander into the committee chairmanship, he'll still have to contend with a thin Senate majority, a Democratic president, and an Education Department put in place by that president.

Mr. Alexander has promised to involve Democrats in the drafting of the reauthorization bill—a contrast with the current chair, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who Republicans said had excluded them from the process (a charge Mr. Harkin's aides denied). That means Mr. Alexander will be working closely with Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who is expected to be the top Democrat on the panel.

Current and former aides say Mr. Alexander is a pragmatist who understands that he won’t be able to pass bills without some Democratic support. They cite his record of collaborating with Democrats on the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, the America Competes Act, and the simplification bill, of which Sen. Michael F. Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, is a cosponsor.

"He’s as bipartisan as you could hope for in what has become a partisan Congress," said one former House Republican aide.

But the senator also has strongly held views, and he doesn’t change them easily. As one former Democratic aide, who also requested anonymity, described it: "He’ll tell you what he thinks, and then turn to his BlackBerry while other members are talking."

"He's a very nice guy, but he also has little patience with other people's opinions," the aide said. "He'll dig into substance, but he digs into it from a fixed point of view."

Whether that’s good or bad depends on where you stand. If one thing can be said about Senator Alexander, it's this: He’s consistent. And as the former House aide put it, "not every member of Congress can say that."