Last month, the U.S. Department of Education issued a 200+-page package of proposed regulations intend to increase transparency and accountability of post-secondary education programs at institutions of higher education. These regulations cover such issues as financial value transparency and gainful employment, financial responsibility, administrative capability, certification procedures, and “ability to benefit.”
These complex issues are layered into the federal law that guides postsecondary education policy: the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. This law was last reauthorized in 2008 and is up for reconsideration in the 118th U.S. Congress. Long overdue for an overhaul, much in education has changed since Congress last reviewed this law.
In his opening statement during a hearing on the issue last week, Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT), Chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee, said, “In order to promote access and completion for the modern student, the HEA needs to be revisited.”
In response, Rep. Owens’ counterpart, Ranking Member Rep. Fredricka Wilson (D-FL), acknowledged that “the evidence is clear: a college degree holds the key to the American Dream.” But she also emphasized the importance of re-examining the law to ensure it is meeting the needs of all students, especially students of color.
The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee also has jurisdiction over this law. Within the past week, both the Committee’s Chair, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Ranking Member, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), have introduced bills focused on post-secondary education. Sen. Sanders’ seeks to make college both tuition- and debt-free, while Sen. Cassidy is a chief author of a legislative package called the “Lowering Education Costs and Debts Act” (Sen. Cassidy has also introduced a resolution to block the Biden Administration’s loan forgiveness plan).
The House Education and the Workforce Committee, led by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), is said to be working on a reauthorization proposal, yet there is no word on what the Senate Committee is drafting. While there is some consensus on the challenges that students face in pursuing higher education, there is little common ground on solutions.
Is there a bipartisan path toward crafting a HEA reauthorization? Bipartisan consensus on a comprehensive reauthorization is key to the success of the process, but it may remain elusive for the 118th Congress. And what happens when Congress doesn’t act? Often the Administration will take on updates to laws by creating new regulations.
That brings us back to where we started: hundreds of dense pages of regulations and thirty days to unpack them and provide comments on a significant number of very technical policies. In response to these proposed regulations, AJCU joined the American Council on Education and 46 other organizations in a comprehensive response to the U.S. Secretary of Education. This letter offers support for some elements in the proposed rule, while highlighting those areas where the higher education community agrees there is a need for improvement. AJCU, along with the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), also provided comments on the topic of identifying low-performing programs using only earnings data. Our associations urged caution on using earnings alone to determine program value, as this elevates salary over service.
What do prospective students and families need to know when considering post-secondary education? Is there data to help them make sound choices on choosing a college? What does the data tell us about how students decide to attend college? Is there value in learning beyond high school? Does college matter? Can we measure the benefits of a post-secondary degree? How do we do so in a holistic way?
These are critical questions, ones that legislators, Administration officials, college presidents, associations, think tanks, and researchers are trying to answer while always keeping the best interests of students in mind. And for students and their families (including adult learners), having these answers is critical.
Working together, we all must do all that we can to commit to principles of accessibility, affordability, inclusion, value, and success. Whether you choose a vocation in ministry, the profession of teaching, or a career in finance, our Jesuit colleges and universities hope that you heed the call of service for and with others, and that your education and formation have prepared you well for any and all of these paths toward advancing the greater good.
By Jenny Smulson, Vice President for Government Relations, AJCU