Work on Federal Student Aid Reform and Free Speech

Rachelle Peterson

What the 2018 Election Means for Higher Education

When the 116th Congress is seated in January, political control will be divided, with Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans in the Senate. What does this mean for higher education? We asked a few NAS members to weigh in. Other articles in the series are, Focus on Reining in the American Bar AssociationTime to Found a New UniversityThe Dog That Didn't Bark, and Reform by Executive Order.

Work on Federal Student Aid Reform and Free Speech

Now that political control of Congress is divided, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) appears unlikely. Earlier this year House Democrats, then still in the minority, proposed a reauthorization bill, the Aim Higher Act, that they are likely to pick up again in 2019. But it is so expansively generous with federal funding—with no meaningful accountability—that the Senate almost certainly will not pass it. (In NAS’s review of the bill, we said it “aims higher only in its ambition to secure more federal funding.”)

Republicans have shown themselves unwilling to pay higher education any serious attention. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, led by the capable Dr. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, produced the PROSPER Act, which offered the strongest reform of higher education in years. Yet the House neither passed the bill nor even brought it up for a vote. The Senate failed to draft a reauthorization bill.

Still, since the Democrats’ priorities are free college, funding for identity politics programs, and similarly ill-conceived changes, the best hope of sponsoring legislation that would meaningfully improve higher education lies with Republican legislators. Republican members of the Senate should use these next two years to draft a detailed, practicable reauthorization plan for the HEA that reforms the most pressing abuses in higher education. Republican members of the House should focus on producing a reform bill that avoids the pitfalls that stymied the PROSPER Act.

The two priorities for Republican legislators should be:

1. Achieve consensus on reforming federal student aid programs. The PROSPER Act provides a good starting point, with its repeal of Public Service Loan Forgiveness; its streamlining of federal student aid programs; its cap on federal student loans; and its provision of “skin in the game” for colleges.

Most Republicans favored these changes in theory, but some balked at the specific numbers. Moderate Republicans felt the policies were too austere; conservative Republicans believed they were too lenient.

In order for these reforms to have any meaningful effect, they must not be watered down. Now is the time for Republicans to do the hard work of researching and setting forth the data that bolsters these reforms, in order to be prepared to pass a meaningful reauthorization bill when they regain the majority.

2. Defend free speech. Intellectual freedom is the bedrock of higher education. Numerous state legislatures have introduced or passed campus free speech legislation, but the federal government has not yet enacted policies to protect the free exchange of ideas on college campuses. The PROSPER Act offered strong rhetoric, but little substance.

Republicans should loudly champion free speech. They should call out Democratic silence and inaction about campus abridgements of free speech, oppose legislation that curtails free speech in the guise of banning “hate speech,” and propose legislation to protect campus free speech (along the lines of what NAS sketched out in our Freedom to Learn Amendments) so as to put Democrats on record on campus free speech. This legislation should be detailed and practicable, and ready to be passed whenever the Republicans regain their majority.


Rachelle Peterson it the Policy Director at the National Association of Scholars.


Photo: united states washington dc, By forcal35 / Source pixabay / License: No Rights Reserved

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