“America Competes” Reauthorization Gets Competitive; Sanders Calls for Free Tuition

DC Shuttle …

America Competes Act Passes House. The House passed the America Completes Reauthorization Act of 2015 in a 217-205 vote. The legislation is a renewal of a bipartisan act signed into law in 2007 and would provide funds for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the Energy Department and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. As Roll Call reports, the renewal legislation is taking fire from Democrats who oppose its funding levels. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called the bill “an assault on science” and the White House has threatened to veto it.

Senate HELP Hearing on Risk Sharing. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). This is the second hearing on the HEA the committee has held this Congress. The first hearing, held in early May, focused on the role of consumer education in college choice. The second hearing explored whether colleges should share the risk of debt with students. HELP Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said that this consideration, and other ways colleges can encourage responsible loan borrowing and repayment, “could be a very important part of our reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.” Most senators agreed that the current system needs to change. They felt it encourages enrollment without considering student outcomes and allows colleges to permit students to reach excessive levels of debt. Several pieces of legislation before the committee seek to repair the system. One, called the Protect Student Borrowers Act of 2015, was introduced by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and has the support of Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). It would hold institutions accountable for a portion of bad loans if those institutions had more than a quarter of their student body borrowing and default rates exceeding 15%. Another piece of legislation which seeks to improve the student loan process is called the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act of 2015. It was introduced by Alexander and has bipartisan co-sponsors. Among its many provisions is one that would prevent students attending school part-time from borrowing as much as full-time students.

Senate HELP Assigns HEA Working Groups. The Senate HELP Committee announced staff working groups for the HEA reauthorization. In a joint press release by Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), the committee outlined four topics of interest for staff as they move forward with the reauthorization: accountability, accreditation, college affordability and financial aid, and campus sexual assault and safety.

Strong Start for America’s Children Act Introduced in Senate.  Murray introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. The legislation would create a 10-year federal-state partnership to expand and improve early education opportunities, according to a press release on the committee’s website.

Sanders Introduces Free College Plan. Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-VT), a 2016 presidential candidate, introduced the College for All Act. The legislation would make college free for undergraduates at public colleges and universities. According to a short summary posted on the senator’s website, the federal government would pay for 67% of the cost for this change, while states would cover the remaining 33%. According to The Hill, the estimated price of this legislation would be $750 billion over the next 10 years. Sen. Sanders’ summary says the cost would be fully paid by imposing a “Robin Hood Tax” on Wall Street, which would levy a tax on financial transactions. His legislation would also make some changes to the student loan and work study programs, as well as simplify the student aid process.

Bill Proposed to Limit Fraud in Education Tax Credits. Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) proposed a bill aimed at limiting fraudulent claims for higher education tax breaks. According to a press release from the senator’s website, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may have paid out billions in erroneous education tax credits to over 3.6 million taxpayers. The Hill reports that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which would require valid tuition statements or other proof of student status to quality for the tax credit.

Foreign Medical School Accountability Bill Introduced in Both Chambers. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) reintroduced the Foreign Medical School Accountability Fairness Act. He had previously introduced it in 2013. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is co-sponsoring the legislation in the Senate, while Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) introduced it in the House. According to a joint press release from the lawmakers, the legislation would fix a loophole in U.S. Department of Education Title IV funding that allowed a small number of medical schools in the Caribbean to get more that $450 million in funding in 2012.

Test Opt-Out Bill Introduced in House. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Tep. Tom Reed (R-NY) introduced legislation  that would guarantee parents the ability to opt their children out of standardized tests. In a joint press release, the lawmakers said the Enable More Parents to Opt-Out Without Endangering Resources (EMPOWER) Act has support from the National Education Association (NEA) and the New York State Teachers Association.

Education Department Readies Corinthian Debt Forgiveness Plan. The U.S. Education Department is preparing to release details of a plan to forgive students who took out loans to attend the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Consumer groups and unions have requested that the department cancel the debt as a group, rather than requiring each student to submit their own appeal individually.

Income-Based Repayment Data Released. According to Politico, new data released by the U.S. Education Department shows record-high participation in income-based student loan repayment plans. The number show that 14% of Direct Loan borrowers were using the federal Pay As You Earn or Income-Based Repayment programs. This graph by Jason Delisle, director of the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project, shows the rise in participation in the program by quarter since 2013.

Campus Sexual Assault. The Huffington Post reported that  32 postsecondary institutions are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education specifically for their handling of sexual harassment cases. The department’s Office for Civil Rights began responding to concerns of lawmakers and stakeholders regarding sexual assault on campus last year by disclosing which colleges and universities are under investigation for potentially mishandling sexual violence cases. Through a Freedom of Information Request, the Huffington Post was able to determine which schools are under investigation specifically for sexual harassment, as the lists published by the Education Department don’t differentiate between institutions under investigation for sexual violence from those under investigation for harassment. TIME Magazine recently reported on a study which indicates how prevalent the problem of campus sexual assault is. The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found similar results as other studies on this topic, that close to one in five women in college are sexual-assault victims.

Increasing State Student Data Privacy Laws. Many federal lawmakers have been considering and proposing bills aimed at protecting student data privacy this Congress. According to Education Week, state lawmakers are following suit. So far this year, 177 bills on the topic have been introduced in 45 states.

Student Debt Report Show Impact on Minorities. A recent report from Demos studies how America’s shift to funding college primarily through debt affects low-income and minority students. It found that African-American and low-income students tend to borrow more—and more frequently—than their peers in order to fund their bachelor’s degree.

Education Gaps May Affect Economy. A recent article from the National Journal examines the education gaps in both high school and undergraduate degrees, between white, African-American and Hispanic working-age residents of the nation’s 150 largest metropolitan areas. It then explores the effect these gaps will have on the economy as it moves to demand even more high-skilled workers.

In-State Tuition Opportunities Dwindling. A New York Times article last week explores the changing make-up of public colleges. Many colleges and universities are seeking to limit tuition increases for in-state students by admitting more out-of-state and foreign students, who pay higher tuitions. A report from The New America Foundation studies how public institutions attract non-resident students and how that can affect Pell Grants and low-income students.

We publish the DC Shuttle each week featuring higher ed news from Washington collected by the New England Council, of which NEBHE is a member. This edition is drawn from the Higher Education Update in the Council’s Weekly Washington Report of May 26, 2015. Founded in 1925, the New England Council is a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the New England region. The Council’s mission is to identify and support federal public policies and articulate the voice of its membership regionally and nationally on important issues facing New England. For more information, please visit: www.newenglandcouncil.com.   

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