Higher education bill expected in senate soon gas finder map

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee appeared Thursday to agree on a number of provisions they would like to see in a new bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which would streamline student loans.

Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said at a hearing that he hopes to have a Senate version of the reauthorization ready “by early spring.” A House reauthorization bill was approved by the Education and the Workforce Committee on a 23-17 party-line vote in December.

HELP ranking member Patty Murray of Washington said she hopes to work with Alexander on provisions that would help lower-income students, those who are the first in their families to go to college, or who are minorities, veterans, homeless or working adults.

“From these hearings I see a consensus emerging that is student focused,” the Tennessee Republican said. “Simpler, more effective regulations that make college more affordable and easier for students to apply for financial aid and pay back their loans; reducing red tape so administrators can spend more time and money on students; making sure a degree is worth the time and money students spend to earn it; and helping colleges keep students safe on campus.”

Lawmakers at the hearing concentrated on access and innovation in education, particularly on distance and competency-based education, programs to support students who need assistance and the availability of education other than the standard four-year degree. Earlier hearings focused on simplifying the federal student loan program, which Alexander complains consists of two grant programs, five loan programs and nine repayment plans.

Besides reauthorizing Higher Education Act programs through fiscal 2024, the House bill would repeal a number of reporting requirements and regulations, eliminate loan repayment plans, reauthorize Pell Grants through 2024 and provide an additional $300 bonus for grant recipients taking more than a full-time credit load.

• A bill that would allow students to use Pell grants to pay for short-term skills and job training programs that lead to employment in high-demand fields like health care and cybersecurity. Authored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Under questioning Thursday from Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, Joe May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District in Texas, said outcomes in regard to the jobs students get and the school debt they accumulate can’t be compared between schools.

“We really don’t count every student,” May said. “We seem to value certain students more than others,” he said, noting that the data on outcomes for students who go straight from high school to higher education is detailed while that for less traditional students is not.

Deborah Bushway, provost at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minnesota, encouraged defining competency-based education in the reauthorization. Compared with online programs, competency-based education is a program that starts from the hoped-for result and builds backward to form a curriculum while also wrapping around the student’s needs, she said.