Will the Higher Education Act be reauthorized in 2018?

ken-salomonKen Salomon is chair of the Thompson Coburn Lobbying & Policy Group. Over the course of his career, he has provided clients with government relations and public policy services in a broad range of issues, including higher education, intellectual property, telecommunications, e-commerce, financial services, and international trade. Ken is also a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his Great Society initiative. It is the basic federal law intended to increase accessibility to higher education by all. About 75% of all federal higher education student aid flows through HEA programs. Like most federal laws, Congress periodically will reauthorize the HEA and we are in the midst of the ninth reauthorization. While the major players in the House and Senate are publicly committed to reauthorizing the HEA this year, the question is, will they get the job done before or have to start over when the new Congress convenes next January


A reauthorization makes some amendments to the HEA. Some are major and some are tweaks. For example, the 1992 amendments made students enrolled in distance education courses eligible for the first time to receive federal student aid loans and grants. The HEA has been reauthorized 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998, and 2008.

For the past several years, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) and the House Education and the Workforce (EdW) Committees have held hearings on a variety of higher education issues including regulatory simplification, streamlining the process for both applying and repaying student loans, and improving completion rates, transparency and institutional accountability, to name several areas of interest.

Where we are Today

The House of Representatives: Following multiple hearings over the past several years, in mid-December, on a party line vote of 23 Republicans against 17 Democrats, the EdW Committee adopted the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform or PROSPER Act, a comprehensive update of the HEA. The bill reflects the views of the Committee’s GOP majority, led by Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Chairman Brett Guthrie (R-KY) of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development who authored the legislation with little if any Democratic input. Reforms are significant because, according to the Committee’s summary of the PROSPER Act, the HEA “is no longer working for postsecondary students and “the American workforce faces a shortage of 6 million skilled workers.” Therefore, “Reforms must be made to assist students in completing an affordable higher education that will prepare them to enter the workforce with the skills they need to be successful.” The summary goes on to say that the PROSPER Act tackles these challenges by

  • Promoting innovation, access, and completion;
  • Simplifying and improving student aid;
  • Empowering students and families to make informed decisions; and
  • Ensuring strong accountability and a limited federal role.

Some of the of the bill’s changes include

  1. Eliminates the definition of credit hour, gainful employment, and borrower defense to repayment.
  2. Authorizes a College Dashboard with cost of attendance and estimated need-based aid,.
  3. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) simplification.
  4. A $300 Pell Grant Bonus per academic year for increased workload.
  5. Establishes a single student loan program and eliminates all grant programs except Pell.
  6. Caps lifetime loans at $60,250 for independent undergraduates or $39,000 for dependent undergraduates.
  7. Reduces student loan repayment options to either a standard 10-year repayment, plan or a single income-based repayment plan.
  8. Eliminates Public Service Loan Forgiveness for new borrowers after June 30, 2019.
  9. Creates a pathway for federal student loan eligibility for competency based education programs.
  10. Institutes some institutional risk-sharing,

The next step in the legislative process for the PROSPER Act is consideration by the full House of Representatives. The process will include a “Manager’s Amendment” by Chairwoman Foxx proposing modifications to the Committee passed bill, likely a package of amendments spearheaded by the Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), and some amendments from other Committee members as well. The latest word is that full House could take up the PROSPER Act in mid-March or early April.

The Senate: The House EdW Committee took the lead on HEA reauthorization in 2017 because the Senate HELP Committee was primarily focused on repeal and replacement of Obamacare. With that effort ended for now, HELP has stepped up its HEA reauthorization efforts and is now hard at work on reauthorization.

On February 1, 2018, HELP Committee Chairman Alexander (R-TN) released a GOP staff white paper on “Higher Education Accountability” providing an overview of current higher education accountability measures and consideration of some ideas for updating them. The goal, according to the paper, is to “Update the federal accountability measures for institutions of higher education to ensure that students are receiving an education worth their time and money” with the strategy to “Modernize and simplify the federal requirements for institutions of higher education to participate in the federal student loan program by creating more effective accountability measures focused on the repayment of federal student loans.”

Senate HELP Democrats quickly countered with a broader “Higher Education Act Reauthorization Principles

  • Make college more affordable and tackle the crushing burden of student loan debt. It is critical to address this massive challenge, which is the overwhelming concern of students and their families.
  • Make colleges more accountable to students and taxpayers by ensuring they are providing a quality education that leads to a real chance of getting a good job with a living wage and that allows families to afford to repay their student debt if they take out loans.
  • Make college more accessible to working families and the middle class. It shouldn’t just be the wealthy who are able to send their kids to four-year universities and who make it to graduation day. Instead, higher education should be truly inclusive, fully accessible for historically underrepresented students, reducing economic inequality, and providing a pathway to opportunity and success for all students.
  • Make higher education safer for all students. The scourge of campus sexual assault and violence is real and must be addressed, and the rights of students of color, women, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students must be vigorously protected.

Like EdW, the HELP Committee also held a number of hearings over the past few years but stepped up its reauthorization focus over the last few months with hearings on simplifying the FASFA simplification in November 2017 and January 2018, a January 25 hearing on access and innovation, a January 30 hearing on accountability and risk sharing or skin-in-the-game, and a February 6 hearing on improving college affordability.

The HELP Committee has a history of bipartisan cooperation, made all the more important by its current make up of 12 GOP and 11 Democratic members. In a move perhaps foreshadowing more bipartisanship Chairman Alexander and Ranking Murray on February 13 issued an invitation with a February 23 submission deadline calling for comments or suggestions for the Committee’s consideration during reauthorization. Chairman Alexander has said to expect a reauthorization bill in “early spring.” While both Alexander and Ranking Member Murray have spoken about a bipartisan bill, it remains to be seen if that goal can be accomplished.

Will it Happen in 2018

 The conventional wisdom by the many of the “experts” in Washington, DC is that while the House may pass the PROSPER Act in the next month or two, there is simply not enough time between now and the mid-term elections in November for the Senate’s HELP Committee to write, debate and send a reauthorization bill for a vote by the full Senate and then go to a conference with the House to hammer out the differences between the PROSPER and whatever the Senate passes and pass that through both bodies. Moreover, if the Democrats believe they have a strong chance of taking back control of one or both houses of Congress after the election, they might choose to drag their feet on reauthorization in the belief that they can get a bill in the new Congress that tips more heavily toward their priorities. Time and the elections will tell.

If I were handicapping the outcome, I think the odds favor that reauthorization will not reach the President’s desk for signature by year’s end. But Senators Alexander and Murray are exceptional legislators with a history of working together and getting things done. It is hard to bet against them. It is also illuminating that the last HEA reauthorization passed and became law in an election year. Will the past prologue?

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square1.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

Accreditation, Quality and Your Institution

Chet(1)By Dr. Chet Haskell Partner of Edu Alliance Group, Inc. and a member of the Board of Directors. Dr. Haskell has served as President of the Monterey Institute of International Affairs, and Cogswell Polytechnical College. He is an expert in the field of regional and international accreditation.

If you are a leader of a regionally accredited higher education institution, worries about maintaining accreditation is not at the top of the list of things keeping you awake at night.

American college and university leaders are well acquainted with accreditation. Institutional accreditation is the necessary precondition for access to essential student aid and research funding. Programmatic or specialized accreditation has been achieved by many of your academic programs. Some of your faculty members and senior administrators and, occasionally, you yourselves participate in the processes of accreditation, serving on review teams or on accreditation commissions. The routines and reports that are necessary when an institution or a program is reviewed are familiar. Accreditation is a fact of life for you and your institution, as it is with most of American academe.

But are there aspects of accreditation that should concern you? I can suggest a couple.

First, the accreditation game may change. The regulations of the Department of Education are in the hands of a new administration with views that contrast with those of the previous administration. The PROSPER initiative of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce would change many rules and incentives that affect institutions and their accrediting bodies. More importantly, the Congress is inching its way to a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. While accreditation reform is not a major theme in the current discussions, various proposals have been put forward that would have an impact. The decoupling of Title IV financial aid from accreditation is the most radical of these, but others such as allowing regional accreditors to compete or mandating new oversight would alter accreditation in significant ways. And because there are a number of imposed mandates on accreditors, they are in many ways de facto agents of the U.S. government. The present debates may influence any or all of these factors. You can be sure that all the accrediting organizations, both institutional and programmatic, are paying close attention to these proposals.

Second, the accreditors themselves are seeking change. Among the initiatives discussed at the recent CHEA meeting were:

  1. Greater emphasis on mission appropriate measures of student success
  2. More efforts designed to inform the public about accreditation, its purposes and processes
  3. More attention to the roles and responsibilities of institutional trustees
  4. New international partnerships
  5. An increased focus on competency based education
  6. Better recognition of the diversity of student demographics and the role of lifelong learning. These and similar steps will influence institutions in numerous ways.

Third, the stakeholders of your institution understanding of accreditation as it relates to academic quality. Accreditation’s credibility and value may be at risk and thus your institution also may be at risk. Indeed, it can be argued, as reflected in recent polls, that more and more Americans not only do not understand higher education, but also doubt its worth.

This is perilous territory for higher education in general and individual institutions in particular. Such sentiments feed potential Congressional and Federal actions that would damage higher education. Furthermore, every higher education institution is dependent on the support of a wider community of students, parents, alumni, donors and local businesses and governments. Institutions are on unsteady ground if these actors question the very value of your institution.

What this really comes down to is the meaning of quality in higher education. Accreditation is one piece of the quality discussion, but it is not well understood that institutional accreditation is just a threshold, establishing minimum standards and playing a sort of minimalist consumer protection role. This approach is the only way to accommodate the diversity of institutional missions and approaches that characterizes American higher education and gives it much of its energy and creativity. Threshold accreditation is not about excellence or quality improvement.

There is no accepted definition of objective quality for institutions. Even the smallest institutions are too complex for simple definitions of quality. Yet the stakeholders, including the public and governments, are often seeking clear indicators of the expected return on their investments. This creates a vacuum into which the various ranking systems have entered, meeting a broad demand for simple statements of relative quality and reputation.

Only institutions can be responsibility for assuring and improving quality. The best American institutions demonstrate this, despite hardly needing accreditation. The top research universities are accredited only because of the desire to access Federal Title IV and research funding. Yet, they constantly seek excellence in an extremely rigorous and competitive environment. Crucial to their success are internal traditions and processes of accountability and a shared culture of academic freedom, faculty based shared governance, meritocratic selection of students and faculty members and similar characteristics. Accreditation does not force them to do this. They would operate the same way even if accreditation did not exist.

So your institution’s internal mechanisms and processes for addressing questions of quality are critical. This is particularly true because not all goals are convertible to metrics. Making measures of outcomes like employment as a standard is not only misleading, but according to longtime Bard College president, Leon Botstein, “dangerous.” Rigorous and continual internal accountability for defining and assessing quality is one of the most important responsibilities of any institution.

Part of internal quality accountability is being open to the rest of the world, since knowledge is a global commodity. How does your institution define benchmarks and select benchmarking targets? How can you assure you are avoiding the provincialism common to higher education institutions? How can you be certain you are educating students not only for their personal success, but also to fight for the principles of higher education and to confront the anti-intellectualism too common in our country? How do you make sure your students are educated for local engagement and also for life in interconnected national and international environments?

Isolationism is a dead end. Despite current national policies (and the fact that fewer than 40% of American adults even own a passport), successful institutions of the future will be those driven to improve quality for their own purposes and to do so in line with their missions, both local and international. At the same time, success will also depend on the capacity to explain all this to often-skeptical parents, students, donors and governments. Transparency matters, but accessibility that assures understanding matters even more.

Thus, something that should keep you up at night is guaranteeing your institution’s constant concentration on defining, assuring and improving educational quality in your own terms. The accreditation processes should be merely a validation of your own commitment to quality. Faculty and staff members, boards of trustees, alumni and donors and, most important of all, students and parents, need to understand the value of what is being offered and accomplished in your institution.

Of course, academic leaders need to pay attention to changes in the policy and accreditation contexts. However, at the end of the day they should worry most about the quality of their own institutions and programs. Crafting and succoring a culture of quality appropriate to one’s own institution is fundamental. Assuring and improving quality in all aspects of an institution and its programs is essential. After all, there is no market for being mediocre. Rather, the value of academic quality will only increase in a competitive global environment. Accreditation may change in many ways, but you can cope with that. But accreditation is not central to high quality. Only you and your institution are.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square1.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.