House Republicans Release Proposal for Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

Last Friday, as the U.S. Senate was debating and passing its version of the tax overhaul, House Republicans introduced a major bill—a proposal for reauthorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act.  Just as it took longer than the recommended five years to reauthorize the K-12, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (from  passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 to passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015), Congress has delayed updating the Higher Education Act, which was supposed to expire in 2013. Everyone predicts months of debate on the issues proposed in the new House bill.

The bill is 542 pages long, which makes it impossible to summarize comprehensively.  Recent reports from Benjamin Wermund at POLITICO Morning Education, from Daniele Douglas-Gabriel at the Washington Post, from Andrew Ujifusa at Education Week, and from Douglas Belkin, Josh Mitchell and Melissa Korn at the Wall Street Journal do, however, indicate the bill’s overall direction—rejecting regulation of for-profit colleges established in the Obama Department of Education—changing the federal student loan program—and emphasizing the connection of higher education to the needs of employers. The liberal arts are underappreciated in this bill, named by its sponsors “The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act”—the PROSPER Act.

Easing Regulations on For-Profit Colleges

It is clear that for-profit colleges would once again prosper under the PROSPER Act. The bill would eliminate regulations instituted during the Obama Administration to regulate these institutions, particularly those whose career training programs are so weak that graduates are not qualified for subsequent employment.  Here is POLITICO‘s Wermund: “Much of the proposal is aimed at scrapping Obama-era regulations—and making sure they stay gone.  Those regulations include ‘gainful employment’ and ‘borrorower’s defense to repayment’ rules, which cut off federal funding to career college programs that produce graduates with large debt loads and provide debt relief to defrauded student loan borrowers, respectively.”  Colleges like Corinthian and ITT Technical Institute were put out of business through Obama-era regulation. The PROSPER Act would prohibit the Education Secretary from creating such rules in the future.

The PROSPER Act also eliminates the 90-10 Rule, which sets an already very liberal 90 percent cap on the amount of revenue any higher education institution may receive from Title IV federal student aid.  The 90-10 rule has been used to try to regulate the for-profit colleges which depend for virtually all of their revenue on federal student loans—with a high default rate when students discover their subsequent income is so meager they cannot repay their loans.

Student Loans

With a hold-harmless to protect students already in the program, The PROSPER Act would eliminate the opportunity for graduates to have student loans forgiven after ten years if they have made payments for 10 years and worked in jobs that benefit the public sector.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Douglas-Gabriel: “The plan, much like the White House budget (proposed but never as yet enacted), would do away with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that wipes away federal student debt for people in the public sector who have reliably made payments for ten years. The program, enacted in 2007 under President George W. Bush, was designed to encourage college graduates to pursue careers as social workers, teachers, public defenders, or doctors in rural areas.”

The PROSPER Act would collapse eight current federal loan programs into two and set limits on federal borrowing: $39,000 for undergraduates (up from $31,000 today), $150,000 for graduate students, and $56,250 for parents.  According to Douglas-Gabriel, “As it stands, people can opt to have their monthly loan payments capped to a percentage of their earnings, with the remaining balance of the debt forgiven after 20 or 25 years. The House plan would eliminate that loan forgiveness, but cap the interest payments on the loan after 10 years.”

Emphasizing Career Prep

Without explicitly castigating the liberal arts and the sciences, rhetoric about the PROSPER Act emphasizes career preparation—even as the bill eases regulations on for-profit colleges with shoddy programs that have left graduates ill-prepared for the jobs the colleges promise.  The Wall Street Journal reporters describe, “Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce which drafted the proposal, (who) lamented that so much of higher education was considered ‘irrelevant’ by employers.  She hopes to better harness technology by pushing accreditors to lean on schools to accept more creative alternatives to higher education: ‘Since the last bill came out, we had a big recession and tremendous technological changes,’ she said. ‘We have a shortage of 6 million skilled workers. What we want to do is help colleges provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.’  The PROSPER Act aims to expand apprenticeships and competency-based education along with more ‘learn and earn’ opportunities, said Rep. Foxx, a former community college president.”

The WSJ reporters predict that The PROSPER Act will be extremely unpopular with leaders of traditional colleges and universities.  Belkin explains: “The act focuses on ensuring students don’t just enroll in school, but actually graduate with skills that the labor market is seeking.” They quote Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation: “You will get nontraditional actors like companies that provide coursework for apprenticeships.”

Surely it is advantageous for graduates of any program to be employable, but higher education has additional important goals. Mike Rose, the UCLA professor who has explored the role of education in general and of community colleges in particular, recently suggested in his personal blog that the debate about college vs. vocational education rests on how we define the purpose of education: “Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life.”

I urge you to read Rose’s reflection on the many purposes of college, graduate school, and post-secondary career training.  The debate about the role of  higher education is complex. It will be much debated in what will likely be months or maybe years of wrangling before the Higher Education Act is eventually reauthorized.

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