From Your Lobbyist: Busy Week for Higher Ed on Capitol Hill
March 18, 2019
Despite taking a few months to settle into their new offices, get acquainted with Capitol Hill, and wrapping up a heated fiscal year 2019 funding battle, Congress was very active this week in addressing higher education issues. Altogether, there were three higher education hearings, a few pieces of legislation, and a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by AYA that tackled issues including simplifying the FAFSA form, oversight of loan servicers, and lowering the cost of college.
Below is a quick summary of everything that went down this week:
AYA’s First Capitol Hill Briefing: And last but certainly not least, on March 13th, AYA had its first briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss the issues most impacting young Americans today, including higher education, climate change, justice reform, and political equality. Not only did we have several members of Congress (yep, from BOTH sides of the aisle) submit videos about the importance young people engaging, we had some seriously ROCKSTAR panelists discuss the policy solutions needed to save our future!
The panel discussion was moderated by politics reporter for TIME, Abby Vesoulis, and featured panelists included:
- Tiffany Jones, Director of Higher Education Policy, Education Trust
- Carolyn Dewitt, President and Executive Director, Rock the Vote
- Michael Skolnik, Criminal and Social Justice Advocate, Co-founder and Partner, The Soze Agency
- Dyanna Jaye, Co-founder & Campaign Director, Sunrise Movement
Didn’t get to attend the briefing or watch live? No problem, watch the awesomeness here!
Senate HELP Hearing – Simplifying the FAFSA Form: Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, Senator Alexander (R-TN), held a hearing on March 12th to discuss simplifying the FAFSA form to make it easier for students to apply for financial aid. In an effort to drastically cut down on the number of questions currently required, often making the application daunting and difficult for students and families to complete, the Chairman explained that he believes the form can acquire all of the necessary information in just 15-25 questions. While there are not many areas of broad agreement within higher education policy, simplifying the FAFSA is one of them. In fact, a group of bipartisan lawmakers including Senators Murray (D-WA), Jones (D-AL), Collins (R-ME), and Bennett (D-CO) are working on legislation to improve the FAFSA form, with Alexander noting during the hearing that the Senators are “pretty close” to getting it done.
House LHHS-Ed Hearing – Student Loan Servicing: On March 13th, the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS-Ed) Committee, which oversees all Department of Education funding, held a hearing to discuss the current student loan issues facing millions of borrowers. Chairwoman DeLauro (D-CT), who is a huge champion for student borrower rights, exclaimed during the hearing that this country is facing a student loan crisis “and a student loan servicing crisis”, chastising the Department for doing nothing to protect students while companies are consistently cheating and defrauding student borrowers. During the hearing, members cited a recent report by the department’s inspector general, which found that loan servicers were very infrequently penalized even after the Department found wrongdoing. For the most part, there was bipartisan agreement that this was intolerable and needs to be addressed immediately by the Department, with Ranking Member Cole (R-OK) thanking the Chairwoman for bringing these issues to light.
House Ed & Labor Hearing – Costs of College: In the final marathon of higher education hearings for the week, the Education and Labor Committee held the first of five bipartisan hearings on higher education, which dealt with the cost of college. The committee is responsible for reauthorizing the higher education act and, under the leadership of Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) is working on legislation that would help lower the costs of college and ensure that the students who need it most are receiving enough federal aid to avoid becoming severely burdened with debt. He noted during the hearing that despite the net cost of college rising by 81% over the past two decades, the median income between 1990-2015 has only increased by 12%. During the hearing, panelists testified about the daily struggles they face trying to balance attending college and affording food, housing, and healthcare – noting that over 50% of college attendees are struggling to make ends meet and afford basic needs.
Despite these challenges, Chairman Scott pointed to a recent report that unequivically concludes that college is still worth the costs: “The evidence and research demonstrate that, given well- supported and responsible institutions of higher education, the answer is an overwhelming yes. A college degree remains a good investment for students and families, as well as local communities and the national economy. Individuals with a bachelor’s degrees typically earn about $1 million more than high school graduates over their lives. Individuals with an associate’s degrees earn $400,000 more than high school graduates over their lives. And two out of three jobs in the modern economy are filled by individuals who have more than a high school education.” On a less bipartisan note, Ranking Member Foxx (R-NC)––who introduced the PROSPER Act in the last Congress, which would have cut $15 billion in student aid and eliminated the PSLF program––took a different approach, explaining she believes the federal government’s various aid programs are partly to blame for the rising costs and student debt crisis and called for serious grant and loan reforms. Essentially, she is saying that if the federal government wasn’t giving out so many loans and grants, which make the cost of college more affordable, students would be unable to pay and colleges would be incentivized to lower their costs to retain the numbers enrolled. Historically, that has not worked and the result would only exacerbate an already existing problem––the fact that only the wealthiest families are able to afford the continuously rising costs, leaving many disadvantaged students with less opportunities.
The Debt Free College Act of 2019: On March 6, Senators Shatz (D-HI) and Mark Pocan (D-WI), along with 42 members of Congress, introduced the Debt-Free College Act, which aims to address the student debt crisis by establishing a federal-state partnership. If passed, the legislation would create a state-federal partnership that “provides a dollar-for-dollar federal match to state higher education appropriations in exchange for a commitment to help students pay for the full cost of attendance without having to take on debt.”
Highlights of the bill include:
- State-federal partnership—the bill creates a voluntary state-federal partnership to increase investment in public higher education and enable students to attend public college debt-free.
- One-to-one match—under the partnership, states would receive an award from the federal government that matches states’ higher education appropriations.
- Debt-free promise to students—states that participate would commit to providing need-based grants to cover students’ cost of attendance, with a goal of achieving debt-free college for all in-state students within five years of joining the partnership.
- Funds for capacity building and improving institutions—states are allowed to spend up to 10% of their partnership award to grow the capacity of their public institutions, support degree completion programs, and make other investments in higher education.