Congress Announces Higher Ed Proposals

by Rachel Zinn
June 25, 2014

House Republicans and Senate Democrats have released competing proposals for postsecondary reforms through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

Like the bill to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which overwhelmingly passed the Senate today, these proposals emphasize stronger data and accountability.  

The House proposal outlines priorities for HEA reauthorization, including “empowering students and families to make informed decisions” and “ensuring strong accountability and a limited federal role.”

The House argues that the federal government should make user-friendly data available to the public about the performance of higher education institutions. Current data collected by the federal government through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) lacks some crucial information, such as graduation rates, for part-time students and older students returning to upgrade their skills.

WDQC agrees that state and federal data systems should do a better job capturing the full range of students and credentials, and should make key outcome measures available so that students can choose between schools and programs.

Two WDQC partners — Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and New America Foundation — describe different routes to getting better higher education data. A recent paper from IHEP notes that IPEDS is planning to collect more information about part-time and transfer students starting in 2015, and suggests additional IPEDS improvements. New America contends that since IPEDS collects data from institutions on groups of students (not individuals), it is a burdensome process that cannot fully answer questions about student progress and success. New America says that the federal government should instead collect student-level records, which is currently prohibited by HEA.

The House Republicans, with members who have traditionally opposed a federal student record system, want to improve IPEDS to provide students and families with better data. 

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, today released a 785-page draft bill that also calls for prospective students to have access to better information. The bill does not include widespread changes to federal data collection, but a statement from Sen. Harkin says that HEA reauthorization should address the development of a student record system.

Sen. Harkin’s proposal requires the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to operate a College Scorecard website that shows key pieces of information about every school that receives federal financial aid. This website exists now, but is not required by law. Under the bill, the site would have to show information about net price, completion and transfer rates, and student debt. There’s no requirement to show the average earnings of future students, which ED is currently working to put on the College Scorecard.

WDQC believes that students and workers should be able to view employment outcomes for all education and training programs. We recommended that ED add earnings to the College Scorecard, though we recognize that this information may not be as useful when presented at the institution (rather than program) level. The WIA reauthorization bill aligns with WDQC’s agenda by requiring reporting of employment outcomes for training providers.

The Senate bill also proposes new federal actions like creating a student complaint system to hold schools accountable. In contrast, the House seeks to limit the federal role. The House would not allow federal ratings of postsecondary institutions — a project underway by the Obama Administration — and would eliminate the Gainful Employment regulation of career-oriented programs.

WDQC will continue monitoring the HEA reauthorization conversations and advocating for inclusion of our federal policy recommendations.