Helping Higher Education Prosper

Rachelle Peterson

“The Higher Education Act (HEA) has produced no end of problems in higher education since Lyndon Johnson first signed it into law in 1965.”

The HEA touches nearly every aspect of higher education. It shields colleges and universities from competition and erects barriers to entry for online and for-profit institutions. It funds activism-training programs such as civic engagement, exposed in NAS’s 2017 report Making Citizens. It provides student loans and grants that reward colleges and universities for raising tuition. And it gives little incentive for colleges to protect intellectual freedom.

This year the House of Representatives may pass a bill to reform the HEA—the PROSPER Act. PROSPER stands for “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform,” and NAS is pleased to have played a role in its development. As of this writing, the PROSPER Act has passed out of committee for consideration by the full House of Representatives. We hope that it will have been passed over to the Senate by the time you read this newsletter.

NAS released a list of recommendations called “The Freedom to Learn Amendments” last year when the House began working on the HEA reauthorization bill. Many of you signed onto our Freedom to Learn petition, which we mailed to all members of the House and Senate education committees. We worked with members of Congress to make the case for meaningful education reform, and when PROSPER was introduced, we were pleased to see many of NAS’s proposals included.

Here’s a primer on what the PROSPER Act would do.

First, the PROSPER Act improves protections for free speech on campus. It declares that “free speech zones and restrictive speech codes are inherently at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.” It also creates a way for students to alert the Secretary of Education when colleges fail to abide by published campus speech and expression policies. The Secretary would be required to investigate student complaints, to require colleges and universities to enforce their own policies fairly, and to refer violations of the First Amendment to the Department of Justice.

NAS would like to see the PROSPER Act strengthened by adding a stronger enforcement mechanism, such as authorizing a commission to investigate colleges and universities’ track records of defending and protecting freedom of speech. Colleges and universities found to be repeatedly malfeasant should be denied eligibility for Title IV student loans. Nevertheless, the PROSPER Act is a strong start toward protecting freedom of speech.

Second, the PROSPER Act adds strong protections for religious freedom and freedom of expression. It forbids colleges from discriminating against religious student organizations, such as by singling them out to deny access to campus facilities, recognition as official student groups, and the ability to determine criteria for membership or leadership (such as by a statement of faith). Colleges would be required to treat religious student organizations on the same basis as secular ones.

It also addresses the plight of religious colleges and universities, which have faced institutional discrimination from government organizations. The bill prohibits any government entity from penalizing religious colleges or universities for carrying out their religious missions or taking actions related to their religious affiliations.

Third, the PROSPER Act supports marketplace competition. It repeals numerous burdensome regulations that treated for-profits and online colleges unfairly, such as the “gainful employment rule.” PROSPER would also permit online schools to obtain state authorization only in states where they have physical locations, rather than in every state in which they have students, as previously required.

Fourth, the PROSPER Act limits the role of government bureaucrats. In previous administrations, the Department of Education has abused its power by inventing regulations that are only loosely grounded in legislative authority. The PROSPER Act repeatedly limits the Secretary of Education to enforcing the law only as laid out in legislation.

Fifth, the PROSPER Act streamlines and reforms Title IV student aid. It simplifies a labyrinthine, expensive system of federal student aid into a single loan program, a single grant program, and a single repayment option. This change will help make clear to students to their options and their total debt. It also eliminates special interest programs, such as public service loan forgiveness, which privileged government employees by offering to forgive their debt after ten years of payments.

The PROSPER Act also reins in spiraling tuition costs. It caps the amount of money students and parents can borrow from the federal government, thus reducing the incentive for colleges to increase tuition. It also gives colleges “skin in the game,” by making programs whose students have low loan repayment rates (less than 45% for the last 3 years) ineligible for their students to receive federal loans. The Secretary of Education would also be required to publish the loan repayment rates for each program in each college or university, introducing a level of transparency that would shame programs into improving their value or lowering their cost.

NAS believes these reforms would be further strengthened by making income-share agreements enforceable, but overall, we believe the PROSPER Act makes a strong start toward reforming Title IV student aid.

NAS has played an active role in helping to inform policymakers on the key issues at stake in the Higher Education Act. If you’d like to play a role, you can see NAS’s full review of the PROSPER Act and download our toolkit for concerned citizens at:

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