Congress Might Finally Overhaul Higher Education

As the House and Senate prepare for hearings to update the law governing colleges, a new report lays out some guiding principles.

Joshua Lott / Getty

Every few years, typically four to six, Congress dusts off the federal law that governs higher education—there are no penalties, per se, if it doesn’t, but the law can quickly become outdated, and if lawmakers want to ensure that federal college programs run smoothly, they keep that schedule. At least that’s what is supposed to happen.

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a seemingly endless Will they or won’t they?—the wonky romantic comedy that writers haven’t been able to finish. The last reauthorization was in 2008, meaning that the typical deadline has long passed and making this the longest the bill has gone without a touch-up. But lawmakers in both the U.S. House and the Senate seem eager to get a deal done, with a rush of activity—speeches, public hearings, and even a New York Times op-ed—stoking the anticipation that the long-overdue update to the HEA may be nigh.

The law oversees federal programs—student loans, accreditation, completion initiatives—and updating it could change a lot of things about higher ed. A reauthorization could range from just clearing some cobwebs to a gut renovation of the bill. It could fix the Free Application for Student Aid, the FAFSA; it could make sure the amount of Pell Grants for low-income students is consistent with the rising cost of college; it could increase federal oversight for higher-education institutions; or it could eliminate some regulations to make it easier for colleges to try new things.

One of the reasons why lawmakers are so keen to update the law is a near-universal belief that college—the affordability of it and access to it—is in desperate need of repair. In recent years, students, parents, and policy makers have all been questioning whether college is still worth the astronomical cost. On Friday, the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, led by Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, released a new report, arguing that though higher education has its issues, a college degree still packs a significant value.

The report, titled “Don’t Stop Believin’ (In the Value of a College Degree),” is the committee’s attempt to lay out its guiding principles as it prepares for its first hearing on reauthorization next week. “As the Committee begins to debate solutions for the vast challenges in higher education, the findings in this report must guide our approach,” Scott said in an emailed statement to The Atlantic. “Rather than diminishing the value of a college degree, we should recognize that all students should have access to the substantial financial and social benefits that come with a quality higher education.” The committee Democrats still believe that college is the right choice for most people, and they want to emphasize racial and economic equity as part of the effort to expand access to college credentials.

The numbers, the report says, speak for themselves. “Two out of three jobs are filled by individuals who have at least some college education,” it reads. That doesn’t refer only to two- or four-year degree programs. The report also advocates for certificate programs, but urges the need for accountability, cautioning against for-profit programs in particular, where students may pay more for less return on their investment. “The cost of attending for-profit colleges is three times that of attending a community college,” the report notes.

Over the past several weeks, Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate’s education committee, and Senator Patty Murray, the committee’s top Democrat, have laid out their own visions for a reauthorization. That committee will also be hosting its first hearing on updating the law next week. While both Alexander and Murray have told The Atlantic in emailed statements that they would like the resulting legislation to be bipartisan—“We have a good history of working together to find areas of agreement, and I expect that we will be able to do the same this year,” Alexander said in his statement—and that they have been “encouraged” by the discussions up to this point, there are still significant partisan gulfs on basic policy that could prevent a final bill from passing.

For example, Alexander has pointed out that the “current level of generosity” in the form of grants and loans to students is “unprecedented,” leading to increased government spending; meanwhile, Murray argued in a keynote address at the Center for American Progress late last month that the government should be factoring in child care, books, and housing when addressing college costs and student needs, suggesting that she will push for a greater federal investment. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the cost of living is the cost of college—and that many students are struggling just to meet their most essential and basic needs,” she said during the speech.

Still, despite their differences, the serious activity in both the House and the Senate suggests that the shape of federal higher education could change significantly in the near future. Deciphering whether or not a Higher Education Act reauthorization will actually pass can feel like trying to read tea leaves, but if the recent flurry of activity is any indication, a failure to reach a deal will likely be due not to a lack of trying, but to fundamental disagreements.