What the new Congress means for colleges

Parties have found common ground on some issues

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, editor

Policy analysts predict that members of Congress will take a stronger role under the Trump administration in shaping future regulations for higher education.

"The expertise now is in Congress. That's not unusual in a Republican administration, but I think it's especially true of Trump," Alexander Holt, a policy analyst with New America's Education Policy Program, told Inside Higher Ed.

Some policy analysts argue that the new administration still needs to strike deals with Democrats to pass legislation through the Senate. Republicans secured 51 seats in the Senate, short of the 60 votes needed to pass bills under normal rules.

And striking deals may not be easy for Trump after a divisive campaign. Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed noted the president-elect doesn't have strong relationships with either party right now, writing that "deep fissures" divide Trump from both mainstream Democrats and Republicans.

However, some Republicans have already proposed using an alternate process called reconciliation, under which Senate bills require only 51 votes, to change the Affordable Care Act.

As the dust settles from the election, here's where Congress stands.

Who they are

Republicans successfully defended control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Tuesday.

In the Senate, Republicans lost two seats but maintained control with a final count of 51 seats to Democrats' 48. In the House, Republicans now hold 239 seats compared with Democrats' 193.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), the chair of the Senate's education committee, is predicted to become an important figure in the future of higher ed regulation. The leading Democrat on the committee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), was re-elected last night and is expected to continue her role. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander on how federal regulations create "unreasonable" costs for colleges 

Analysts say there will be a new chair for the education committee in the House of Representatives. Current chair Rep. John Kline (R-Minnesota) is retiring and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) is predicted to replace him.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) won re-election to his seat after failing to secure his party's nomination in the primary. Rubio has been a staunch advocate of alternative approaches to higher education and for-profit colleges. He has also focused on employment outcomes and supported outcomes-based accreditation.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) was also re-elected to his position on Tuesday. Johnson became a controversial figure in higher education after questioning the value of college educators and suggesting they might often be replaceable with video lectures.

How they'll vote

Unsurprisingly, experts predict the new administration will attempt to roll back some of their predecessors' initiatives that are particularly unpopular among Republicans.

For example, President Obama has aggressively cracked down on for-profit colleges in the past few years by establishing new protections for defrauded students. Analysts say such rules could disappear under a Trump administration.

However, the two parties have found common ground on a few issues. Republicans and Democrats alike have vowed to make progress on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.  And both parties support streamlining and simplifying the FAFSA.

An early FAFSA fact sheet you can give to your students

Andrew Kreighbaum at Inside Higher Ed writes that both parties have expressed interest in risk-sharing or "skin in the game" measures, which would make colleges and universities more accountable for students' long-term career and debt repayment outcomes (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 11/9; Kreighbaum/Lederman, Inside Higher Ed, 11/10; New, Inside Higher Ed, 11/10; Stratford et al., Politico, 11/9; New York Times[1], accessed 11/10; New York Times [2], accessed 11/10).


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