Staking out divergent approaches to ensuring access and affordability in higher education, Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have put forward competing proposals for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act—the 1965 legislation that governs federal higher education policy—The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
The Republicans introduced their bill—the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform, or Prosper, Act—last year, while the Democrats’ Aim Higher Act rolled out this week. Although the bills aren’t expected to make headway before the November elections, they offer a window into the parties’ visions for simplifying the financial aid application process, addressing students’ struggles with education loan debt, and making college financially accessible for more students.
Streamlining the financial aid application process
Seeking to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the Democratic bill creates three application pathways depending on the complexity of a student’s finances. Students in the lowest income category would automatically qualify for a full Pell Grant under this plan.
Republicans would allow students below a maximum income threshold to complete a simplified FAFSA, with the goal of encouraging more middle-income families to apply for aid. The Prosper Act would also mandate creation of a mobile FAFSA application.
Rethinking federal grants
Under the Republican plan, the current six federal loan programs would consolidate into a grant program, a loan program, and a work-study program. This plan would eliminate a grant program that gives money to aspiring teachers who commit to working in a high-need school, a loan forgiveness program for public servants, and a supplemental grant program specifically for students with “extraordinary financial needs.”
Democrats would expand the public service loan forgiveness program, expand the supplemental grant program, increase annual maximum Pell Grant awards by $500, index Pell Grants to inflation, and prevent the conversion of grants to loans. The Aim Higher Act would also reduce fees in the loan process, bolster counseling, and simplify repayment.
Improving access for financially insecure students
Focusing on high-need and underserved groups, the Aim Higher Act seeks to ease access to financial aid for undocumented, Native American, U.S. territory students, as well as to improve college completion rates by providing support to students who are disabled, homeless, in foster care, military veterans, parents, or contending with substance abuse.
The Republican bill focuses on education and awareness of federal funding aid for students facing financial challenges. The federal government would create online tools to support financial aid awareness, and federal aid recipients would receive counseling.
Democrats aim for debt-free degrees
The Democrats’ bill takes a step toward free higher education by proposing a state-federal partnership program that would provide two years of tuition-free community college, Education Week reports. The federal government would subsidize the community college program in exchange for state commitments to increase funding for colleges and universities.