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PROSPER Act could make first changes to Higher Education Act since 2008

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is the chairwoman of the committee proposing the PROSPER Act. The act would be the first changes to the Higher Education Act of 1965 since 2008. Photo courtesy of Foxx.

A proposed U.S. House of Representatives bill by the Committee on Education and the Workforce could bring sweeping reform to higher education policy.

The committee, chaired by Republican N.C. Rep. Virginia Foxx, introduced the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform Act Friday. The bill reauthorizes the Higher Education Act of 1965. 

If passed, the bill would be the most recent update to the HEA since 2008. In a joint statement, Foxx and Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-KY, said the promise of post-secondary education is broken. 

“We need a higher education system that is designed to meet the needs of today’s students and has the flexibility to innovate for tomorrow’s workforce opportunities,” the statement said. “The PROSPER Act is higher education’s long overdue reform.”

The main goals of the bill are promoting innovation, access and completion; simplifying and improving aid; empowering students and families to make informed decisions and ensuring strong accountability and a limited federal role, the committee reported in its summary of the bill.

"(Foxx) frequently cites UNC's Carolina Covenant as an example of the kind of institution-driven programs we need to encourage students to pursue higher education and finish what they start," a spokesperson for the committee said in an email. 

One pressing aspect of the bill is to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, making it consumer-focused and available to use on mobile devices.

Revisions to the HEA include increasing the tools available for students to use when filling out their financial information, such as transferring data straight from the Internal Revenue Service to reduce the amount of original data entry by applicants.

Another significant update in the bill is the change in funding eligibility for historically black and minority-serving institutions, which currently receive funding from the federal government without having to meet quantitative guidelines. The PROSPER Act would require these institutions to have a completion rate of at least 25 percent in order to receive funding. 

At least 61 institutions that receive money under the Title III and Title V provisions fall under 30 percent completion, which is at or near ineligibility. Another 36 institutions — four of which are in North Carolina — would be marked as ineligible under the bill, an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education found.

Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said in a statement Friday the broad vision outlined in the bill aims to promote greater college access and successful completion.

“A federal higher education policy framework that helps America’s students prosper will offer all students the chance to transform their life circumstances and achieve a more secure future for themselves and their families,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, said in a statement Wednesday that today’s students face a number of obstacles, such as rising tuition costs, finding a program to train them with the skills for today’s economy and increasing levels of harassment and discrimination on campuses.

“It’s extremely disappointing that House Republicans are taking another partisan step in the wrong direction and introducing a plan that would harm students by cutting billions in financial aid and undermining protections for survivors of sexual assault,” she said.

In a statement Friday, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said although reauthorization of the HEA could positively address changes in higher education since 2008, the proposed legislation represents a step backwards on access and quality.

"It eliminates important student benefits and undermines accountability,” the statement said. 

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the AASCU, said in an interview that the bill significantly undermines student protections. He also said the bill eliminates many tools students often use to avoid large amounts of debt and reduces the number of repayment options to only two plans.

“This bill makes things decidedly worse,” he said. “It will allow more predatory players to come in and rip people off.”

Nassirian said there are two readily identifiable interest groups who benefit from this bill. The first is the owners and executives of for-profit institutions who get funds from the treasury with little liability. The second is comprised of the student loan agencies that would be able to reenter the market.

He said given that this is a first draft of a bill that has not left committee in the House, it is difficult to believe this bill will become law before the end of this academic year. Students preparing to leave higher education would likely be grandfathered into current programs should it become law.

Nassirian said although the current version of the HEA is not perfect, it is better than the new bill.

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"It is highly inadequate to (handle) changes in our economy, to (handle) the changing composition of the student population, to (handle) the global scene which current students are stepping in and will have to compete in," he said. "This bill will almost certainly increase student debt.”


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