Senate Republicans, Democrats Outline Priorities for HEA Reauthorization

U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) laid out a framework for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), releasing a white paper Thursday that suggests current federal accountability measures for higher ed institutions are inadequate or simply unfair, Inside Higher Ed reported.

The paper says lawmakers should start with a "blank slate" by eliminating some current requirements, including cohort default rates, a measure tying federal aid to the percentage of an institution's graduates default on their student loans; the 90-10 rule, which requires 10 percent of an institution's revenue to come from non-federal sources; and gainful employment, issued by the Obama administration to hold career education programs accountable for high student debt.

According to the paper, the cohort default rate rarely sanctions colleges and provides little incentive to improve. Instead, a loan repayment rate—an alternative favored on both the right and the left—would be preferable. The paper also suggests that the 90-10 rule and the Obama-era gainful employment rule were faulty because they targeted only certain kinds of programs, namely for-profit colleges.

The HELP committee has held four hearings since the middle of January to discuss revamping the federal law governing higher education. The sudden flurry of activity signals Sen. Alexander's intent to move ahead quickly with an overhaul of the Higher Education Act. The chairman said at a recent hearing that work drafting reauthorization legislation would begin "within the next few weeks." Sen. Alexander has previously said that he plans to have the committee mark up a bill by early spring.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member on the committee, said Alexander's principles "would move us in the wrong direction and make it very clear we have some serious and tough issues to work through as we negotiate a comprehensive reauthorization of this important legislation, but I remain hopeful we can get this done as quickly as possible." She said rewriting the law should prioritize putting "students and taxpayers first—and that means strengthening our existing accountability provisions for schools that could be taking advantage of students, not weakening or eliminating them. And we should be holding all colleges accountable for successful outcomes for all groups of students."

Senate Democrats, in response to the white paper, issued their own set of principles they say should guide the rewrite, among them: college affordability, access for low-income students, safety on campuses and accountability for institutions, reported Inside Higher Ed. The Democrats' principles, in contrast, say that it is more important than ever to provide extra scrutiny of for-profit colleges after the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech. The paper also said accountability should involve better data on student outcomes, including the repeal of a ban on a federal student-level data system.


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