HEA reauthorization is moving both too fast and too slow

Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization seems to be finally on its way—but while the process is several years behind schedule, some critics say it's now moving too quickly.

Members of the House education committee spent several hours Tuesday reviewing a bill that marks the first step to reauthorization: the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act.

The committee finalized the bill, which now moves to the full chamber. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate education committee, says he plans to start work on the Senate's own version of the legislation early next year.

Also see: HEA reauthorization has been a top priority for Congress since the 2016 elections

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), one of the PROSPER Act's sponsors and the chair of the House education committee, says she wanted to go farther than a mere reauthorization of HEA and introduce more substantial reforms.

The Democratic ranking member of the committee, Rep. Bobby Scott (VA), has criticized the way Republicans have handled the reauthorization process so far, saying it has been rushed and lacking in bipartisan input. The PROSPER Act is 542 pages long and committee members have had roughly two weeks to review it.

Some groups, representing universities, students, or consumers, have also expressed concerns about the timeline of the bill. "Despite the fact that reauthorization is already several years behind schedule, this bill is suddenly being rushed through committee," Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, wrote to committee leaders Monday in a letter signed by 36 other higher education organizations. 

Craig Lindwarm, director of congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, expressed similar concerns. "We are greatly concerned that the rushed process thus far has not allowed for thoughtful consideration by policy makers and stakeholders of complex policy proposals," he said. "The risks of getting this wrong are too great to not slow down and think through implications."

Other groups argue Congress has moved too slowly on reauthorization for years now. The current version of the HEA expired in 2013, and Congress started—but eventually stalled on—the reauthorization process in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

The bill's sponsors—Foxx and Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), chair of a subcommittee focused on workforce development, say the PROSPER Act is a "long overdue reform." Foxx compared the PROSPER Act's timeline to previous bills crafted under Democratic administration. "Our colleagues are suffering from amnesia when they say this process has been rushed," she said.

Learn more about Rep. Foxx's plans for higher ed

On Tuesday, the committee considered more than 60 amendments to the bill. Around 40 were introduced by Democrats and most of those were rejected in party-line votes, Inside Higher Ed reports. Among the failed proposals was one that would have set Pell Grants permanently in the law, raised the maximum award, and indexed the award to inflation.

Another failed amendment would have revived the Obama administration's regulations on for-profit colleges, but Republicans argued that for-profit and nonprofit institutions should be held to the same standards.

"If we want transparency, if we want accountability, if we want what you say you want, let's apply that to everybody," said Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-MI). "The false dichotomy continues to devalue career and technical education, which is wrong in this economy" (Krieghbaum, Inside Higher Ed, 12/13; Douglas-Gabriel, Washington Post, 12/12; Kreighbaum/Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 12/4; Harris, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/29; Kreighbaum, Inside Higher Ed, 12/12).

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