House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled their version of legislation to reauthorization the Higher Education Act, as the Republican-backed Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, H.R. 4508, has struggled to reach the House floor.
The legislation, introduced by Democrats on the House education committee, incorporates a package of smaller bills from a legislative campaign started last year, which focused on making college more affordable, reported Bloomberg Government. The Aim Higher Act, named after that initiative, includes provisions that would require states to make public two-year college free for every student, offer students the option of debt-free in-state college, and allow incarcerated and undocumented students to access federal student aid.
The bill would boost the maximum Pell Grant by $500 and index the value of the grant in future years to inflation. Additionally, it would shift the majority of Pell funds to mandatory spending, making support for the program more stable.
Aim Higher would modernize the funding formula for Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) to better direct the program to institutions with the most unmet need. It would also protect and expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which forgives public servants' loan debt after 10 years of repayment.
The PROSPER Act, in contrast, would cut borrower benefits—including eliminating both the SEOG and PSLF programs and the student loan in-school interest subsidy—and keep the maximum Pell Grant steady at its historic low rate of purchasing power.
The Democrats' bill would take a dramatically different approach to accountability as well, preserving key rules targeting for-profit colleges eliminated in the PROSPER Act, in some cases pushing them further, reported Inside Higher Ed. For example, the Republican plan would eliminate the so-called 90-10 rule, which limits the proportion of revenue an institution can generate from federal student aid to 90 percent. Under Aim Higher, the rule would not only be maintained, but would be changed to an 85-15 formula.
Aim Higher would maintain the cohort default rate, an accountability rule that applies to all higher education institutions, by adjusting the metric for total number of borrowers at an institution and number of borrowers in long-term forbearance. It would also alter the role of accreditors by requiring the oversight bodies to account for student outcomes like completion and workforce participation in their evaluations of colleges.
The Democratic proposal does share some common features with the PROSPER Act, Inside Higher Ed reported. Like the Republican bill, it would streamline loan repayment options by offering one fixed rate and one income-driven repayment plan for student borrowers. It would eliminate student loan origination fees and open Pell Grant eligibility to short-term programs. Additionally, the legislation includes language, championed by AACRAO, from the bi-partisan Reverse Transfer Efficiency Act that would create a new FERPA exemption to allow the sharing of student information between institutions to facilitate increased college completion rates through reverse transfer.
Neither the Aim Higher Act nor the PROSPER Act are likely to become law, especially in an election year with many higher legislative priorities. However, both bills serve as a marker for House Democrats' and Republicans' efforts to overhaul higher education policy as the reauthorization process slowly moves forward.
Aim Higher Act Fact Sheet
Inside Higher Ed