HEA

Only two weeks into 2019, and already Capitol insiders are buzzing about new higher education laws, presidential hopefuls are heading to Iowa, and governors across the country are rolling out new ideas. To make sense of it all, I polished my Magic Eight Ball to hazard four predictions about the next 12 months.

1. Congress will advance higher education legislation.

Congressional efforts to rewrite the Higher Education Act are gaining steam. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who leads the Senate education committee, announced his retirement, leaving higher education as his only major piece of unfinished business. Newly re-elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted the effort in her recent statement on higher education. Think tanks are polishing their position papers, and congressional staffers are drawing up lists of policy options.

Sen. Alexander and his Democratic partner, Sen. Patty Murray, are effective legislators with a track record of working together. Most recently, they produced a bipartisan bill on one of the most controversial questions in Washington: how to stabilize the Affordable Care Act. Now, with Rep. Bobby Scott taking the helm of the House Education and Labor Committee, we have the best chance yet at a new higher education law.

2. States will invest more in college affordability.

With improving revenues, states are in a better position to spend more on need-based aid and keeping tuition low. A growing national conversation about free college has put pressure on policymakers to introduce bold affordability ideas, and a spate of newly elected Democratic governors takes office this month eager to make a splash.

In his first days in office, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed substantial investments in Cal Grants, keeping tuition low at community colleges and public universities, and steps to help more students graduate. Even better, Newsom described these steps as a "down payment" on greater resources to come.

Look for more states to join California in investing in college affordability in the coming months. The investment is sorely needed: State spending on higher education is lower than it was 10 years ago, adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth.

3. Student debt for graduates will grow slowly, though millions will continue to struggle

Last September, in their annual report on student debt, TICAS researchers Diane Cheng and Veronica Gonzalez found that average debt of graduating seniors is growing more slowly than in years past. After growing by about 6 percent per year between 2008 and 2012, it grew by less than 0.5 percent between 2012 and 2016. I expect the slower growth will continue into 2019.

We don't know for sure why student debt is slowing down, but there are likely several factors. Greater state spending and scholarships may have helped make a dent. Increased media focus on college costs may have made students more careful consumers.

While slower growth in student loans is welcome news, costs remain high and many borrowers continue to struggle. More than 1 million students default each year, and low-income students and students of color are particularly likely to struggle to get out from under their college debt.

4. The bloom will come off income-share agreements.

Income-share agreements have entered the higher education hype cycle. The idea is to replace traditional loans and allow students to repay their tuition as a share of their future earnings. The hype reached its highest point last week when New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin described them as "a fundamental shift that could finally lift the crippling debt load we routinely push onto students."

Of course, because students are obligated to make future payments, income-share agreements are merely a different form of debt. For almost all students, federal student loans offer lower rates and a similar option to repay as a share of income. Income-share agreements may make sense for some students, but they are niche products that complement federal loans, not a solution to college affordability.

Not that long ago, policymakers often left higher education on the back burner. No longer. More and more Americans are looking to college as the best bet to join the middle class and enjoy a better life. Student debt is now a kitchen table issue that immediately impacts families' lives, the very reason we may see change in 2019. Time will tell.

 

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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.

 

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