Higher ed under the new GOP-controlled Congress

Likely fewer regulations, less funding, and more roadblocks for federal ratings

Republicans took control of Congress in the midterm elections last night, which could have major implications for higher education policy.

A GOP-controlled House of Representatives and Senate will likely seek to reduce federal requirements for colleges, decrease federal funding for student aid and research, and complicate the Obama administration's efforts to create a federal college rating system, reports Michael Stratford for Inside Higher Ed.

Related: What’s next for higher education in the new Congress?

However, Republicans do not hold a veto-proof majority in either chamber, which tempers their control.

So what exactly does that mean for colleges and universities?

A range of funding cuts looks likely

The GOP is known for tighter spending—which could result in less research and student aid money. At the K-12 level, analysts expect conservatives to target competitive-grant programs like Race to the Top.

At the same time, reforms pushed by Democrats are likely to lose their time in the spotlight. Such reforms include lower student loan interest rates and holding for-profit institutions accountable for loan defaults.

A round of automatic budget cuts is scheduled for fiscal year 2016—and those are less likely to be avoided now that the GOP control Congress, says David Baime, senior VP for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges. But the cuts may not be as severe as some fear—budget cap relief proposals received bipartisan support following the 2013 government shutdown.

Matthew Owens, VP for federal relations at the Association of American Universities, expressed concern that smaller budgets for domestic programs will "hamstring the ability of Congress to make investment in scientific research and student aid."

Instead of campaigning to expand financial aid programs, student aid advocates may have to fight just to maintain the current level, says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

What about the federal ratings system?

The Obama administration is set to release an outline of the federal rating system in the near future, but a GOP-controlled Congress makes tying federal aid to institutional rankings even less likely, because it would require congressional approval to pass. But Democrats have not rallied behind the proposal, and some Republicans actively tried to block any ratings at all.

Private, public colleges divided over Obama's new rankings

Additionally, the "gainful employment" rule targeting for-profit colleges will likely face intense scrutiny. 

Change-ups in committee leadership

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is expected to become chairman of the Senate education committee, following his current ranking member post.

Alexander's resume includes former posts as president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. secretary of education. He has suggested his priorities lie in simplifying the application process for federal student aid—including student loan and grant programs, as well as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Alexander says he will "start from scratch" when reforming the Higher Education Act, though he has refrained from commenting publically on what that may mean aside from aid reform. Alexander previously teamed with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (D) to offer a comprehensive proposal to cut the six different federal loan programs into three and combine two federal grant programs into one Pell Grant program, Lauren Camera notes at Education Week.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.)—known for his support of for-profit institutions—will likely remain chairman of the House education committee.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is expected to become the Senate committee's top Democrat, and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) will also join the committee from the House side.

Meanwhile, Democrats Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (Calif.), both active within education policy, will retire (Camera, "Politics K-12," Education Week, 11/4; Stratford, Inside Higher Ed, 11/5).


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