Thereâ€™s little doubt that the Higher Education Act, which affects more than $120 billion in annual federal spending, needs an update. Less clear is whether Republicansâ€™ proposed reforms will do more harm than good.
The law, last revised a decade ago, sets the conditions under which federal student financial aid is disbursed. It is the governmentâ€™s primary tool for preserving access to higher education. Since 2008, the college student population has grown by more than 1 million -- while Americansâ€™ federal student-loan debt has doubled. College students are older and more likely to attend part-time or enroll in online programs, yet federal policy remains geared toward a narrowing slice of the population.
So the revised legislation needs to meet some core objectives. It should make applying for financial aid simpler and easier for low-income students. It should broaden the range of programs eligible for federal financial aid, to include more non-traditional, skills-based programs. And it should create a system for aggregating student-level data on the salaries and debt levels of college graduates, broken out by school and major, and make that data available to the public.
In December, the House Education Committee approved along party lines a Republican-drafted bill that contains some useful innovations. It doubles funding for work-study programs, increases support for apprenticeships and streamlines the notoriously complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Other aspects of the bill, however, donâ€™t count as improvements. Among other things, it ends the loan-forgiveness program for college graduates who enter public service.
Both parties have an interest in creating a post-secondary system thatâ€™s more equitable, accountable and cost-efficient - and in showing voters that lawmakers can still work together for the common good.