What's next for higher education in the new Congress?

A revamp of the Higher Education Act is likely

The next Congress is poised to overhaul the Higher Education Act—but it remains unclear as to how. Observers say that specific legislation will wait until after the outcome of Tuesday's elections.

The Higher Education Act—which covers everything from Title IX requirements to Pell Grants—was last updated in 2008, but increased scrutiny of higher education and a flurry of proposals suggest the 114th Congress is likely to significantly change the law. However, legislators have released few specific bills—waiting to see the outcomes of Tuesday's elections before committing to a strategy.

Here are some of the changes that may be on the horizon:

Streamlining Financial Aid: Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, released a whitepaper in June outlining Republican priorities for changing the Higher Education Act. Chief among them is a consolidation of federal financial aid programs. The Republican proposal would seek to combine a multitude of federal loan, grant, and work study programs into one each.

Increasing efficiency in admissions and financial aid offices

The proposal would put students in control of their Pell Grants by calculating the total amount they are eligible for over the course of their college career—then allowing them to draw on those funds as needed.

Another, bipartisan proposal introduced in the Senate by Sens. Lamar Alexander, (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on the education committee, and Michael Bennet, (D-Colo.) would reduce the number of federal loan programs to three, consolidate the number of grants, and simplify the federal aid application process.

Measuring quality: In broad terms, the plans share many features. However, a likely point of disagreement is over President Barack Obama's proposed quality ratings for colleges and universities—which the Republican proposal in the House of Representatives bans. 

The House proposal addresses quality and transparency through reforms to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), to which colleges are required to provide data to qualify for aid programs under the Higher Education Act. Kline's blueprint would simultaneously try to ease IPEDs reporting requirements for colleges, collect more comprehensive data, and make it easier for students to understand the reports.

Paying for Pell: Currently, lawmakers have not decided on a plan for funding the Pell Grant program long-term. Since Pell is a needs-based program, its cost can increase unexpectedly when more low-income students apply to college—as it did during the height of recession. Pell Grants have already been changed once in an attempt to reduce costs—in 2011, they stopped covering summer courses. While lawmakers have helped put the program back on financial track for now, more will need to be done in order to ensure Pell is fully funded during any future economic downturns. Both parties have proposals to restore Pell Grant's coverage of summer courses.

Related: Strategies for increasing enrollment in summer programs

Regulating for-profits: There have been a number of smaller proposals to further regulate for-profit colleges, which Democrats have said use federal aid to provide a poor quality education and often provide predatory loans. Republicans disagree, saying for-profits provide access to many nontraditional students who cannot attend a public program (Camera, Education Week, 11/3; Education and the Workforce Committee, 6/26; Stratford, Inside Higher Ed, 6/25).


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