Departing senator leaves blueprint for Higher Ed

Introduces a complete overhaul of the Higher Education Act

Outgoing Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) proposal to completely overhaul the Higher Education Act has little hope of passing, but may hint at Democratic priorities in the next Congress.

Harkin, the Democratic chairman on the Senate education committee, released a similar draft of his bill in June, but the latest version includes some notable changes.

The new version of the bill:

  • Changes the formula for how colleges receive work-study funding and Perkins Loans allocations;
  • Creates a "Pell Bonus" program to reward colleges that graduate low-income students;
  • Establishes a federal "unit record" database to better track student outcomes at an individual level; and,
  • Simplifies the FAFSA process so students reapply for aid less often.

In keeping with his earlier draft, the bill would also restore year-round Pell Grants, expand an income-based repayment system for student loans, and launch several competency-based education pilot programs.

However, at 874 pages, the bill touches on numerous other areas of federal higher education policy.

Little chance of passing

With Harkin retiring, and Republicans gaining control of the Senate during the next Congress, the bill is extremely unlikely to pass—or even receive a vote. Nevertheless, Harkin "wanted to lay out Democratic priorities for the next Congress," an aide said.

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

Overall, Democrats and Republicans are shaping up to have strikingly different approaches to overhauling the Higher Education Act. For instance, Republicans in the House elected to pass a series of piecemeal bills instead of drafting comprehensive legislation.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) is widely expected to become the chairman of the Senate education committee next year, and said he intends to "start from scratch" on overhauling the Higher Education Act.

Budget questions

To many in higher education, the more immediate worry is whether or not Congress will be able to pass a new funding bill for education prior to the current stopgap funding provision's on December 11th.  In the event lawmakers cannot agree on new funding levels for the 2015 fiscal year, they may elect to continue spending at current levels. This would mean the next time Congress would increase funding may not come until October of next year (Stratford, Inside Higher Ed, 11/21; Bidwell, U.S. News & World Report, 11/20; Field, Chronicle of Higher Education [subscription required],11/21).

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