Blog Post | November 29, 2018

A Higher Education Law Is More Likely Than You Think

Author: James Kvaal

This post originally appeared in Forbes.

In Washington, gridlock is a running theme. So it’s not surprising that, even before all the winners of the election were named, experienced observers put the odds of higher education legislation at close to zero. After all, Congress has only passed one comprehensive higher education bill in the last 20 years, and the Capitol is now under divided control.

This time, though, the skeptics might be wrong. The 119th Congress may be the first to rewrite the Higher Education Act since 2008.

Key congressional leaders are saying the right things. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who is expected to lead the House education committee, will make higher education a priority. So will Senate chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is entering his last term leading the Senate education committee. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Democratic point person in the Senate, is a seasoned legislator with a track record of success. Together with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-VA), this is the same Big Four that defied expectations and shepherded the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in 2015.

Alexander has been exploring higher education for three years already, and over the last 12 months, Foxx worked hard to advance her flawed PROSPER Act. Their failure may seem discouraging, but the reality is that most legislation fails, often several times, before it succeeds. Past efforts serve as roadmaps, helping future legislators avoid pitfalls and find common ground.

Another counter-intuitive factor: divided control can actually make legislation easier. In the 38 years since the Democrat-led reauthorization in 1980, the HEA has never been reauthorized unless the parties shared control over the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.

That’s not just an interesting bit of historical trivia: in the Senate, the minority party must cooperate to avoid a filibuster. If that party does not control either the House or the White House, these senators may block any movement out of fear that they will be denied a seat at the table later in the process.

And there is common ground. Already, Alexander and Murray have unveiled a joint proposal to use tax data to simplify the processes for applying for student aid and repaying student loans as a share of income. Both parties agree on the need to reduce the number of different kinds of student loans and repayment plans. With Scott in the driver’s seat in the House, the prospects for bipartisan efforts to collect better postsecondary data — such as the College Transparency Act — have also improved.

There are, of course, also pitfalls. One is traditional: spending. The Trump Administration and House Republicans have proposed large cuts to student aid to reduce the deficit. Democrats are seeking substantially more resources for free college and Pell Grants. The number of senators running for president could make these cross-currents even trickier to navigate.

On college accountability, policymakers from both parties say they want to better protect students and taxpayers from unaffordable debts. But Democrats and Republicans have clashed fiercely on rules like borrower defense and gainful employment, which protect students from predatory colleges and low-value career programs. The Trump Administration is systematically dismantling these protections through deregulation and willful neglect.

Campus sexual assault — another area of Administration action — will be another challenging issue for negotiators.

And let’s be clear: no bill is better than a bad bill. Lawmakers must be ready to walk away from any deal that fails to hold colleges accountable for unaffordable debts, deception and fraud. Any law must also invest in making college more affordable for students who need help the most.

But a higher education law does not need to resolve these issues once and for all with a grand, enduring compromise. It only needs to find a way through the thicket that all parties agree is better than where we are now.

Ultimately, even if legislation fails, it will become a starting point for a future, successful law. Over the course of the next two years, trial balloons will be floated; coalitions formed and legislative text drafted and voted upon. The results of these debates will shape future laws.

It’s a lot of work to get an act of Congress, but the right lawmakers seem committed to giving it a try. After decades of rising college costs and growing inequality, that’s a good thing.