In Congress, Higher Education Proposals Fall Flat

Until the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which authorized student loans and programs, the federal government had little influence on the operation of universities and colleges in the United States. But by creating stipulations to receiving the benefits of the HEA, Congress has wielded considerable influence over higher education ever since.

The federal role in higher education is often characterized as making sure all Americans have equal access to educational opportunities. Now pressure has increased for federal lawmakers to intervene in other aspects of higher education.

Addressing campus sexual assault, controlling rising costs of college, and regulating the growing for-profit higher education industry are just a few of the issues that are addressed by legislation currently introduced in Congress. This expansion of higher education policy lawmaking reflects the increasingly paternalistic relationship between the federal government and states.

Despite an abundance of proposals and countless hearings, Congress has only passed one bill related to higher education since it convened in January 2015: the Federal Perkins Loan Program Extension Act of 2015 which, despite its name, phases out the Perkins loan program. The lack of movement isn’t abnormal for Congress; overall, only 3 percent of bills are ever signed into law.

Although the bills currently under consideration are unlikely to pass in the immediate future, evaluating them reveals the current areas of federal interest in higher education. These categories can be broadly defined as student aid and access, controlling costs, and political interest.

Student Aid and Access

Regulation of student financial aid remains the top priority of federal lawmakers with regard to higher education. Bills to reform Pell Grant administration, simplification of the loan process, and expansion of repayment options are proposals under consideration.

The primary barrier to passage of student aid legislation involves appropriations. While these bills may authorize federal funds for certain uses, the conditions for these provisions are often untenable and thus the program is left inoperable.

The bill most likely to succeed, sponsored by Kentucky Republican Rep. Brett Guthrie, is a student aid proposal to require more comprehensive loan counseling for students who participate in federal loan programs. The research and tracking website GovTrack, which estimates likelihood of a bill passing “based on factors that are correlated with successful or failed bills in the past,” has given Guthrie’s proposal a 32 percent chance of being enacted. This bill has passed the House in previous sessions but has failed to make it past the Senate.

Another popular proposal would streamline the student aid application process by establishing a relationship between the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education to help students complete their loan applications. Republican Rep. Joseph Heck of Nevada sponsors the current version but this bill has been introduced several times in previous sessions.

Table 1

Controlling Cost

The federal government addresses the cost of college in a variety of ways. Congress has authorized tax credits to families paying for college; it maintains tax-exempt status for public and private colleges and universities; and offers numerous other deductions and savings benefits.

But despite President Obama’s push for nationwide free community college, proposals to eliminate the cost of college have failed to gain traction in Congress. The two primary bills (one to make community college free, and the other to make all college free) were given only a 1 percent chance of success by GovTrack.

Table 2

Political Interests

Other than dealing with cost and student aid, Congress members have authored proposals to address federal overreach, strengthen student privacy, and decrease campus sexual assault. These bills, more than the other categories, often reflect political attitudes toward current hot topics. More often than not, these measures serve as political grandstanding more than an attempt to introduce passable legislation.

Among the most popular bills in this category are those sponsored by republican North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education. Under the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act, the Department of Education would be required to construct a comprehensive website to allow students easy access to information about universities such as student-faculty ratio, completion rates, and average net price. This bill has broad bipartisan support and was given a 35 percent chance of passage by GovTrack.

The Supporting Academic Freedom through Regulatory Relief Act, also sponsored by Rep. Foxx, would repeal several Department of Education regulations that target for-profit colleges, specifically the controversial Gainful Employment regulation, which requires schools to prove their students are attaining gainful employment in a recognized occupation after graduation. It currently has 39 cosponsors, a companion bill in the Senate, and a 34 percent chance of enactment.

Table 3

Although these bills are unlikely to be enacted any time soon, their introduction often leads to significant conversation both within Congress and at the state level.

However, a lack of federal legislation on higher education does not equal a lack of federal intrusion in higher education. Absent new laws, the U.S. Department of Education for years has reinterpreted old laws to fit new meanings. This is especially true with Title IX interpretations, a fact that North Carolinians have become keenly aware of the past few weeks with the HB2 “transgender bathroom” controversy.

While we await court rulings on the legality of these interpretations, it might be time for Congress to assert its sole authority to make laws.