New Education Leadership in Congress with HEA Hanging in the Balance

November 5, 2014

By Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

With the swing of the Senate to a Republican majority, the 114th Congress will likely change its areas on focus for higher education policy. Republican leadership has expressed an interest in de-regulating higher education and streamlining the many higher education programs. There will be little support for President Obama’s accountability agenda, including tying the federal college ratings system to financial aid or expanding oversight of for-profit institutions. However, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the next HELP Committee chair, is very interested in simplifying the financial aid process, in particular the FAFSA form. Inside Higher Ed has a complete rundown of the Congressional changes, and the Chronicle of Higher Education profiles Senator Alexander and covers ballot measures and gubernatorial races.

The 114th Congress, which will take office in January, will bring many new faces to education leadership. With the retirements of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA), and the switch to a majority Republican Senate, three of the four education committee leaders will be serving in new roles. Senator Lamar Alexander will take over as Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions chair after serving as ranking member and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will likely be the new ranking member for Democrats. In the House, Representative John Kline (R-MN) is set to continue as chair as the Education and Workforce Committee, and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) will replace Mr. Miller as ranking member.

This new group of leaders has a heavy lift in front of them. A Sen. Harkin aide says he will use the lame duck session of Congress to work on HEA, but it is unlikely that a new bill will pass during this waning Congress. However, both chambers must at least consider an extension or the law governing financial aid programs will expire at the end of 2014. With an extension, the new Congress will need to tackle both the reauthorization of HEA as well as Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA – also No Child Left Behind). While HEA was last reauthorized in 2008, ESEA has not been reauthorized since 2003. Senator Alexander says a new ESEA bill will be his first priority in the new Senate, but his committee also oversees healthcare so expect any changes to the Affordable Care Act to take up time as well. 

What do all of these changes mean for the college access world? First, ensuring that HEA reauthorization maintains the financial and service supports for low-income students is paramount. With Senator Alexander’s commitment to FAFSA simplification, there is opportunity to cut down barriers for our students, but funding of high dollar programs like the Pell Grant will also be part of the discussion. Further, most Republicans, and several Democrats, do not support President Obama’s proposal to tie federal financial aid to the soon-to-be announced federal college ratings system. NCAN has supported this ratings system as a consumer tool first and foremost, and likely that is all it will be for the next two years as this Congress is highly unlikely to make financial aid contingent on the ratings system outcomes. 

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