New Updates to Federal Higher Education Act Appear Dead for This Year!

Dear Commons Community,

It seems that Democrats and Republicans fundamentally disagree over updates to the higher education act especially with regard to the federal government’s role in holding colleges accountable and ensuring that a higher education is affordable and accessible to low-income and minority students. Democrats also distrust the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, over her willingness to protect students from unscrupulous colleges.  As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Last week Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, announced that he didn’t expect the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which he leads, to produce a reauthorization bill this year. He blamed the panel’s Democrats for inaction, saying they’ve been sitting on a complete proposal from Republicans for four months. “They want to wait until next year to see if they’re in better shape politically” before taking on higher-education reform, Alexander told an audience at a forum sponsored by The New York Times.

On Monday a spokeswoman for Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee, painted a different picture.

Alexander had earlier agreed to call Murray by the end of April to discuss plans to draft legislation through a bipartisan process, said the spokeswoman, Mairead Lynn, but “we never heard from him.” His comments last week blaming Democrats for failing to act “were the first time we heard him say that,” she said.

It’s not the Democrats who are refusing to act, Lynn said: “Senator Alexander has walked away from the table.” Murray believes the best way to come to agreement on a bill is for representatives of both parties to write the legislation together, said Lynn, “and not simply exchange partisan drafts and call it a day.”

A top aide to Alexander disputed that assessment on Tuesday, saying Murray’s office was “trying to rewrite history.”

Alexander’s office provided a “a good-faith draft” proposal that included topics that Democrats cared about and a schedule for further meetings, said the aide, who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly. Since then, the aide said, “for four months it’s been crickets.”

Alexander’s office declined to share the proposal it had presented privately to Murray, out of courtesy to her, the aide said. But the aide said the draft reflected the ideas Alexander has published as his five goals for reauthorization.

If Murray changes her mind, Alexander’s aide said, “we’d be there with a notebook and a pen.”

Most functions of higher education that depend on the federal government can continue whether or not the Higher Education Act is reauthorized. Nonetheless, some higher-ed advocates have been looking to the reauthorization process as a chance to modernize policies about accreditation and competency-based education, and even to expand the eligible uses of Pell Grants. The Senate stalemate effectively kills all chances of reauthorization this year.


With Congress unlikely to act, Secretary Betsy DeVos has said the Education Department will use the regulatory process to attain goals that are ordinarily pursued through reauthorization. “While a full rewrite of the law by Congress is the preferred method,” a DeVos spokeswoman told the Times, “the department must move forward with the law that we have. Students don’t have time to wait, and they, along with schools and taxpayers, deserve certainty and relief from the regulatory overreach by the previous administration.”

Among DeVos’s targets for reregulation or deregulation are rules aimed at protecting students from being defrauded by colleges, most of them for-profit institutions; rules that cracked down on colleges, also mostly for-profits, that saddled students with loan debts they could not pay off; rules that fostered state-level authorization of for-profit chains; and perhaps most controversial, the enforcement of Title IX, the part of the law that has been central to a crackdown on sexual harassment and assault on campuses.”

There is always next year!


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