A new session of Congress is underway, and already its members are wrestling with the same issues that drove debate during the recent midterm elections. Long-serving lawmakers and fresh faces alike will continue to address topics including Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, the implications of deregulation and the rise of free college programs.
This week, government and industry leaders convened at a meeting with journalists in Washington to discuss how a newly divided Congress is expected to shape higher education policy in the coming months.
Here's what the industry can expect in 2019:
Hope for the Higher Education Act
The 2018 midterm elections brought talk of possible HEA reauthorization, which is now years overdue. While some have been optimistic about a rewrite passing, others have raised doubts the debate could survive a divided Congress.
Whatever form reauthorization takes will have major implications for colleges across the U.S. The Democrat's plan, called the Aim Higher Act, would boost funding for Pell Grants, give DACA students access to federal aid and increase oversight of for-profit colleges. The Republican's plan, called the PROSPER Act, also calls for more Pell Grant funding but would loosen rules governing for-profits.
The two bills are at odds with one another, but congressional leaders from both parties have voiced a willingness to attempt reauthorization.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee, is hoping to reauthorize the HEA by the end of 2019, said David Cleary, his chief of staff. "Eleven months is a lot of time," Cleary said. "It's a lot of time to get through committee, get to the floor, go to conference with the House." (Alexander has said he will not seek reelection in 2020.)
Cleary added that a split Congress may prove to be fertile ground for Democrats and Republicans to reach compromise on some issues.
Meanwhile, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chair of the House education committee, thinks HEA reauthorization is possible. "If we can get it done by the end of the year, it'll be a great accomplishment," he told reporters.
However, panelists predicted that if reauthorization does pass this Congress, it likely won't take the form of sweeping legislation as Republican and Democratic lawmakers work to merge disparate visions of a rewrite.
"I'm optimistic where you get a reauthorization," said James Bergeron, president of the National Council of Higher Education Resources. "I'm not optimistic that we're going to get a major reauthorization that's going to solve the major problems."
Deregulatory efforts take center stage
As Congress struggles to make headway with the HEA, the Education Department is moving forward with its wide-ranging regulatory overhaul.
Earlier this month, the department released a draft proposal for new rules that would loosen oversight around accreditation, drop the definition of the credit hour and ease requirements for student-instructor interaction.
Various stakeholders representing students, colleges, accreditors and state regulators are addressing that proposal in a negotiated rulemaking session that runs through March. If they don't reach consensus about what the regulations should be, the Ed Department will get to hammer out the details itself.
The department has cast the current regulations around accreditation as a barrier to institutional innovation, but some critics of the federal agency's proposal worry it would open the door for fraud and low-quality instruction.
"There's this rhetoric around innovation, flexibility and choice," said Spiros Protopsaltis, the director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University. "Under the guise of that rhetoric, they're pursuing a very aggressive agenda that's actually dismantling key student and consumer protections."
Other critics have noted that before the credit hour definition was put in place in 2010, some institutions were found to have inflated credits to receive more federal student aid.
Moreover, some have voiced concerns that relaxing the definition of "regular and substantive" interaction will lead to colleges using pre-recorded materials or outsourcing instruction to those who don't have subject-matter expertise.
"There's this rhetoric around innovation, flexibility and choice. Under the guise of that rhetoric, (the Ed Department is) pursuing a very aggressive agenda that's actually dismantling key student and consumer protections."
Director, Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University
"Weakening (regular and substantive) is something that has monumental implications because it redefines what it is the federal taxpayers are going to be funding," Protopsaltis said. "Are they going to be funding education or are they going to be funding self-learning?"
However, Diane Auer Jones, a top Ed Department official for postsecondary education, told reporters that the department does not plan to do away with the "regular and substantive" definition. She indicated a revised definition could include student interactions with artificial intelligence programs or with a learning team.
Likewise, she said the department is not eliminating a federal definition of the credit hour. "It is easier to start the conversation from a blank page," she said on Monday. "We know that where we end up is not going to be the same as where we began." She echoed those comments speaking to accreditors at a separate event in Washington on Wednesday, adding that the department is "not wedded" to its proposed accreditation rules.
Meanwhile, the public comment period for the Ed Department's rewrite of Title IX regulations ended Wednesday night and got more than 100,000 comments. The agency's proposal would narrow the types of cases colleges are required to investigate and raise the bar for what qualifies as sexual harassment.
The department has also targeted the borrower defense and gainful employment rules for deregulation, but missed a deadline to deliver final regulations, stalling their implementation.
Free college gains traction
Free college made the campaign agenda of several Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms, and it could continue into the 2020 presidential race and beyond.
The concept of free college is gaining traction as politicians bring it to the public's attention. In the last few years, several states have enacted some form of promise program, including Maryland, New York and Arkansas.
But as its popularity grows, some organizations have called on policymakers to ensure the programs are truly designed to meet the needs of low-income and underserved students.
Programs that cover only tuition fail to account for additional costs such as textbooks, transportation, and room and board that can be a barrier to attendance, said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust.
And while many free college programs focus primarily on community colleges, she said an ideal program should cover four years of college and not be limited to two-year degrees, as many currently are.
"We want to make sure that low-income students, students of color who are interested in earning a bachelor's degree have the access and opportunity to do so," Jones said. "It's really important that we're not limiting their opportunities based on their income by offering these opportunities at two-year colleges and universities."
Jones cited eight recommendations from The Education Trust on how to design free college programs for low-income students. They include covering living costs, including adult and returning students and not requiring students to repay aid. The nonprofit wrote in September that no statewide promise programs meet all the criteria and on average address only half.