Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act

At the end of June, Senate Democrats and House Republicans separately presented plans on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law as a measure to help colleges and universities. It is the major law that governs federal student aid, and in its initial inception, it increased federal money to universities, created scholarships and provided low-interest loans for students. It currently spans a wide range of topics, from loan limits to accreditation.

The act has been reauthorized nine times, with the most recent authorization from 2008 expiring at the end of 2013. Six years ago, Congress wanted to hold colleges and states accountable for rising tuition costs, to stop student loan abuses, to make applying for federal student aid easier and to help students make better decisions in regards to higher education.

While some goals were met, tuition costs continue to rise and for the first time in history, student debt has surpassed consumer debt at $1.2 trillion. While both political sides have their own distinct ideas in regards to reauthorization, there is some common ground. In fact, just a week earlier, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Sen. Michael F. Bennet outlined a bill - dubbed the FAST act -- to reduce the 108-question Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to just two inquiries that would fit on a postcard.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, while this isn't the first time that simplifying the FAFSA has been suggested, this radical proposal makes a point. Both sides seem to understand the benefits of eliminating a cumbersome bureaucracy and removing a hurdle that discourages low-income students from tackling a complex FAFSA, keeping them from pursuing higher education.

While some states and educational institutions rely on data collected on the FAFSA, supporters of the new bill argue that a streamlined process could provide information as early as a student's junior year in high school, which would allow for better overall educational financial planning. The bill also could reorient federal student loan programs into one each for undergraduates, graduate students and parents, and it could reduce loan repayment options to two -- an income-based plan and a 10-year plan.

It's clear this goes hand-in-hand with the reauthorization of Higher Education Act. EdCentral looks at key areas of reauthorization reform, including better consumer information and simplification of processes, accountability, financial aid, education preparation and competency-based demonstration programs.

How these key areas are addressed will be debated by both political sides, and Inside Higher Ed looks at how each is approaching these areas. The Democrats want a comprehensive reauthorization, while the Republican approach is more piecemeal.

For example, Republicans say college leaders should be responsible for controlling costs, not the government. They also want to promote innovation and single out competency-based education -- which focuses on learning, not seat time -- and direct assessment programs as examples. The Republican plan also aims at repealing or blocking portions of President Obama's changes, such as the college ratings system and state authorization regulations.

Democrats want to hold colleges responsible for how successfully graduates repay loans and for poor student outcomes. In addition, the proposal would reduce the percentage of revenue that for-profit colleges receive from some federal sources and prohibit those funds from being used on advertising and marketing.

Meanwhile, Inside Higher Ed reports on the U.S. Department of Education's annual rankings of the most and least expensive colleges in the country, released on June 30. Interestingly enough, this list is a result of the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, created in hopes that it would "embarrass" schools into keeping costs down. However, there's no proof that the list had the desired effect, as a number of institutions appear on the list year after year.

In the current discussion regarding reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, some lawmakers are calling for the list to simply go away. On the other hand, Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the list, citing the ability of families to make informed decisions about "the single most important investment students can make in their own futures."

As we analyze what has and has not worked in the past and discuss what can be done in the future, it's clear that there is no one easy solution. We will keep an eye on what will happen, as it will take many months before anything actionable is developed.

In the meantime, College of DuPage continues to take action in regards to the fact that community colleges have the highest two-year default rate among all institutional categories. While the local economy is starting to recover, COD continues to increase its efforts to reach out to students who require extra support to stay in school. COD hosts student loan education programs that focus on retention issues for keeping students in school, making the most out of their time here through involvement in student activities and providing counseling to ensure their investment in education provides a strong ROI. We understand cannot sit idly and wait for solutions to come. While politicians hammer out the details of the FAST Act and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, both of which will have an impact on us, we must always be looking for ways to help our students succeed. For example, College of DuPage offers a new 3+1 program that enables students to earn their bachelor's degrees on our campus through partner universities at a significantly reduced tuition cost. In addition, we are targeting the adult population with a Fast Track program and offer free Career Services opportunities, programs to enhance their current career skill sets, and a fully staff Learning Commons to assist all students at all stages of their educational experience at COD.

Community colleges remain the best value out there in terms of receiving a high quality education for a reasonable cost. I am currently working with community college presidents throughout Illinois to explore the prospect of offering specialized bachelor degrees at our colleges that will open even more doors to the attainment of higher education. The future is bright and College of DuPage will continue to move forward on initiatives that assist President Obama's goal in having more college graduates in the U.S. than ever before.