Democrats, Republicans outline higher ed goals for coming months

With a new Congress in session, leaders from both parties have articulated a number of higher education priorities, many with bipartisan support. Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA)—the new chairperson of the House Committee on Education—and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)—the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions—publicly announced their visions for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), improving transparency for college outcomes, restructuring loan repayment systems, and more, reports Education Dive.

Reauthorizing the HEA

Congress last reauthorized the HEA in 2008, and extended it in 2013 with few changes. Legislators from both parties have expressed interest in reauthorizing the years-overdue HEA, and both Rep. Scott and Sen. Alexander have called it a near-term priority.

Democrats and Republicans last year put forth bills offering 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. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Sen. Alexander’s recent plans, however have been “accompanied by pledges of bipartisan cooperation,” which could set the stage for negotiation.

“In my conversations with Democrat and Republican senators, I have found a remarkable degree of bipartisan consensus about the directions we should take to make college affordable and make students’ degrees worth their time and money,” said Sen. Alexander. “Of course, there will be differences of opinion, and if there are, we will resolve them the traditional way: by voting.”

Increasing access to financial aid, easing loan repayment

According to Inside Higher Ed, reducing hurdles to FAFSA completion, simplifying student loan repayment, and increasing colleges’ accountability for student loan repayment rates are all top priorities for Sen. Alexander. “We can cut from 108 to no more than two dozen the number of questions on the dreaded federal student aid application form,” he told The Hechinger Report, estimating that the change could potentially result in two million more students receiving aid.

Expanding Pell Grants also has emerged as a priority in recent statements by Rep. Scott, while Sen. Alexander has said he supports making Pell Grants available to incarcerated students.

In addition, Sen. Alexander has suggested streamlining loan repayment systems by automatically enrolling borrowers in either a 10-year repayment plan or an income-based repayment plan.

“This new option should end the nightmare that many students have of never being able to afford their student loan repayments,” said Alexander. Rep. Scott, meanwhile, has said he favors affordable income-based plans, community service incentives, and tax deductions for interest paid on loans.

Debating transparent access to college outcomes

Movement is increasingly likely on a student-level data system for tracking and making transparent student outcomes in K-12, through higher education, and into the workforce, reports Inside Higher Ed. The higher education proposal introduced last year by Rep. Scott would have lifted the ban on such a data system, and proponents of transparency say prospective students would benefit from seeing college- and program-specific data on alumni career paths and earnings. Opponents to the system cite privacy concerns around tracking millions of students who have not applied for federal aid.

Revisiting accrediting agency standards

Accrediting agency standards also have drawn attention, with the Education Department’s recent proposal to “loosen oversight around accreditation, drop the definition of the credit hour, and ease requirements for student-instructor interaction,” writes Education Dive. A group of student stakeholders, colleges, accreditors, and state regulators are engaged in a negotiated rulemaking session. If they cannot generate concrete recommendations on a regulatory plan by March, the Education Department will move forward without them.

While opponents have cautioned against deregulation, fearing an increase in fraud and lowered educational standards, proponents say the proposal could increase innovation across the education sector.

Related: Education department proposes looser oversight of accreditation for federal financial aid >

Considering free-college programs

Hot off the campaign trail, many legislators have continued pushing for free college, and several states have put promise programs into place. But higher education organizations are calling for policymakers to monitor whether free-tuition programs are delivering on their promise or whether low-income and underserved students might benefit from alternative models that better address the cost of housing, food, and other necessities.

Related: Many candidates running on ‘free college,’ but critics point to mixed results >

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