Is HEA reauthorization on track or doomed? Depends on whom you ask.

Negotiations could last a 'decade' warns one policy analyst

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), the chair of the Senate committee charged with rewriting the Higher Education Act (HEA), says he hopes to have a draft of the legislation ready by September.

Alexander spoke Tuesday at an event hosted by National Journal, telling attendees that the progress working on K-12 issues with ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) gave him confidence a bipartisan agreement could also be brokered on the HEA. The law covers student loans, Pell Grants, Title IX, and a myriad of other provisions.

Higher Education Act reauthorization is coming. Here are the four key issues.

Alexander noted there was bipartisan agreement in several areas. For instance, both parties have expressed a desire to reinstate year-round Pell Grant funding, promote dual enrollment and transfer agreements, and simplify applying for financial aid.

Ted Mitchell, U.S. Education Under Secretary, also emphasized Tuesday that the states must increase their investment in higher education, which is "breaking" as the result of steep funding cuts. However, he was "heartened" that several states are experimenting with tuition-free community college—something president Obama has pushed for with his own program.

Alexander agreed that the states needed to do more, but noted the federal government had made things worse by burdening the states with new financial obligations related to programs like Medicaid. In addition, Alexander outlined plans to reduce the regulatory burden imposed by the HEA on colleges by rolling back the Obama administration's gainful employment rule and proposed college rating system.

Report: Federal regulations create 'unreasonable' costs for colleges, universities

Areas of disagreement

Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, says optimism on reauthorizing the HEA may be misplaced. "[HEA] is a conversation that might take a decade," he observed.

Miller says disagreements over funding programs like TRIO, which provides first-generation college students with extra support, could make passing the HEA difficult. And while there is broad bipartisan agreement that year-round Pell and automatic eligibility checks for federal financial aid are good for students—funding remains an issue. "Those two things cost money and if it weren't for the monetary side of it we'd have those back already," he says.

GOP House budget calls for 10-year limit on size of Pell Grants

Miller notes that if passing a large HEA becomes politically difficult, lawmakers could opt for a piecemeal approach. Alexander has described the HEA as "the piling up of well-intentioned laws and regulations, done without anyone first weeding the garden" (Camera, Education Week, 6/9; Dembicki, Community College Daily, 6/9).

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