Congress

House Democrats advance federal student aid overhaul

Bill would expand grants, push back on Trump's for-profit schools agenda

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Rep. Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. His panel approved a sweeping bill that would seek to address student debt, among other higher education programs. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Education and Labor Committee on Thursday voted 28-22 to approve a massive overhaul of federal student loans and other higher education programs that they touted as an overdue move to address the costs of higher education. 

The 1,165-page measure earned no Republican support at the end of a markup that began Tuesday. Among numerous other provisions, it would expand Pell Grants, tweak the Federal Work-Study Program, direct more aid to minority-serving institutions, emphasize campus safety and set several new requirements designed to impose tougher standards on for-profit colleges. It would also use federal aid to encourage states to offer tuition-free community college educations. 

The measure represents the increasing importance of addressing student debt as a plank of the Democratic agenda. Throughout the debate on amendments, which concluded on Wednesday, Democrats praised the bill as a long-awaited solution to a $1.5 trillion student debt crisis and a necessary crackdown on schools with predatory practices.

“There’s no issue which is more directly connected to that cohort of the population than the work we are doing today,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., referencing the historic number of young people who voted in the 2018 midterm elections. “Our bill addresses it in real, meaningful ways that will put money in young people’s pockets.”

Republicans expressed near-uniform opposition to the bill and offered dozens of amendments, most of which were rejected. They argued that the bill would pour money into programs that aren’t helping students and hamper institutions with excessive federal regulations.

[Partisan divide reaches into views of higher education

“The so-called College Affordability Act will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, limit educational freedom, increase the cost of college for students and ignore the needs of those pursuing the American dream,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the panel’s ranking member. “The paternalism in this bill is really very strong.”

If enacted, the bill would be the first time the Higher Education Act has been comprehensively reauthorized since 2008, but action in the Senate has yet to happen. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is also working on reauthorization, and Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has cited it as a priority ahead of his 2020 retirement.

[House Democrats start work on student aid measure]

The Congressional Budget Office has not yet given the House bill a score, but Democratic committee staff say it would cost roughly $400 billion over 10 years.

One issue that frequently surfaced as lawmakers debated the bill was the issue of for-profit colleges. Republicans offered several amendments, all rejected, to soften parts of the bill that would target or exclude for-profit institutions, including provisions to include them in the bill’s Pell Grant expansion and strike a provision to establish gainful employment standards for training programs. 

“This idea of disproportionately targeting this specific sector of higher education is misguided,” said Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, arguing that for-profit institutions are often the most flexible educational path available to students, including veterans, minorities and low-income students.

Democrats defended the bill’s emphasis on protecting students against what they see as poorly run institutions that don’t guarantee success.

“What’s important is that we be sure everyone is playing by the rules,” said Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-Calif. “A number of for-profits have not created a situation where our students are protected. We are far smarter to go with those institutions that have proven themselves.”

Debate over other amendments reflected traditional partisan divides on higher education. Democrats rejected Republican amendments that would prevent immigrants living unlawfully in the country from accessing in-state tuition rates, mandate that institutions disclose free speech codes to prospective students, protect student privacy in government data collection and ensure that sexual assault adjudication guidelines proposed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos can take effect.

Republicans also took issue with the legislative process, arguing that minority members hadn't been given enough say in developing the bill.

“The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is something that’s been very important to us,” said Rep. Glenn“GT” Thompson, R-Pa. “Unfortunately, there’s enough poison pills that we’re on a track where this won’t see the light of day in the Senate.”

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