5 policy issues to watch in 2018

The last few months have seen the Trump administration ramping up on higher education priorities it laid out after the 2016 elections.

The administration passed a significant tax overhaul late last year, but several pieces of major legislation related to higher ed are still working their way through Congress. Writing for the Washington Post, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel recently rounded up some of the most notable policy issues on deck for 2018.

1: Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization

After years of back-and-forth, Congressional leaders have shown renewed interest in reauthorizing the HEA with a new bill called the PROSPER Act. Members of the House of Representatives education committee finalized their version of the bill late last year. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate education committee, says he plans to start work on their version of the legislation early next year.Some of the key issues under consideration include: the definition of credit hours, a financial aid overhaul, a new student level-data system, and various accountability and risk-sharing proposals.

Read more: Here's what we know so far about HEA reauthorization

2: Challenges to gainful employment & borrower defense

Douglas-Gabriel reports that the Department of Education has begun the process of rewriting the Obama administration's gainful employment rule, which sought to apply tougher regulations to vocational and non-degree programs at community colleges and for-profit institutions. For-profit institutions have lobbied against the rule, and some critics have expressed concerns the new version of the rule will be more favorable to for-profit colleges, Douglas-Gabriel writes.

Similarly, analysts predict the department will also look to revise or undo the borrower defense to repayment statute, which was meant to help student borrowers who were misled by for-profit colleges. Meanwhile, many states have initiated lawsuits related to the regulations, Douglas-Gabriel reports.

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3: Uncertain future for Pell Grants

The current administration has sent mixed signals about its support for Pell Grants. A recent change to the FAFSA allowed low-income students to use Pell Grant dollars in the summer, but Congress later depleted much of the program's funds, Douglas-Gabriel writes.

Among those who hope Pell Grant funding will increase under the HEA reauthorization is Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. By increasing Pell Grant funding, "federal policymakers can help our neediest students afford a college education without shouldering costs through burdensome loans," she says.

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4: Decreased funding from states

Policy analysts predict that state legislatures may cut higher education funding in response to concerns that they may collect less money in tax revenue next year (in wake of the tax overhaul recently signed into law). States showed during the recession that, in such situations, they're willing to make drastic cuts to higher education appropriations if it helps balance their budgets. 

Also see: Higher ed had 4 main concerns about the tax bill. Here's how they turned out.

5: An end to public service loan forgiveness

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have previously called for an end to the public loan forgiveness program, which is intended to help people seek careers in lower-paying positions in public service. Douglas-Gabriel points out that while revising this regulation is not a priority in the Senate at the moment, it is certainly something they may bring back up this spring (Douglas-Gabriel, Washington Post, 12/29).

Related: Why do fiscally conscientious students default on their loans?

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