En December 12, 2017, a long line of lobbyists, advocates, and reporters began to form outside a stately hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. Inside, Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, was preparing to launch one of the most important acts of her tenure as chair of the House's education committee: a comprehensive rewrite of the law governing the American system of higher education, the Higher Education Act (HEA). A former community college president herself, Foxx had ideas about how to guide the nation's sprawling collection of colleges and universities and the enormous federal student aid system that keeps them afloat. Now, for the first time, she was going to fully reveal her plan to the nation: H.R. 4508, the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act.
It had been nearly a decade since the HEA was last reauthorized. In that time, American higher education had witnessed an economic crisis that devastated state funding for higher learning. Student debt skyrocketed, the for-profit higher education industry cycled through scandal and collapse, and small liberal arts colleges began disappearing from the map. At the same time, a relentlessly competitive labor market was making advanced skills and credentials more essential than ever before.
But in recent years, a comprehensive rewrite that would respond to these changes had taken a back seat to a crowded legislative agenda and tumultuous politics in Congress. The Senate had yet to produce its own proposal this term, and that created an opening for Foxx to plant her legislative flag first, setting the agenda for everything that followed.
Foxx began the committee meeting by invoking the idea of "lifelong learning" as the "root of all innovation," which, she said, is needed for prosperity and to fill six million jobs that American employers can't fill at the wages they'd like to pay. She then blasted colleges for continually hiking tuition. "Today, Americans carry more than $1 trillion in student debt," Foxx said. "College costs continue to surge, leaving millions of families to pay the price for well-intentioned but poorly executed federal involvement." lhe HEA didn't just need to be reauthorized, she said. It needed to be reformed.
Sitting next to Foxx was her Democratic counterpart, Robert "Bobby" Scott, whose district contains Hampton and Old Dominion Universities, among others, and who was the first African American U.S. representative elected from Virginia since Reconstruction. Himself a graduate of two of the nation's finest colleges--he received his bachelor's from Harvard and his law degree from Boston College--Scott was mindful of the HEA's origins as a pillar of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. "The promise of the HEA has eroded, and for far too many of our students, access to economic opportunity provided through higher education is now out of reach," he warned.
As other committee members offered testimony, the battle lines became clear. Foxx and the Republicans wanted to deregulate the industry, reduce or eliminate federal subsidies, promote private-sector competition, and make higher education more responsive to the needs of business. Rightwing media stories portraying today's college students as coddled and entitled and college administrators as leftist enemies of free speech added to Republicans' sense that the system was badly in need of reform. But as skeptics of any kind of federal intervention, they were trying to figure out how to upend the higher education system without actually passing a law that would require states and colleges to take real action.
Democrats, by contrast, called for a renewed crackdown on predatory for-profit schools. With respect to traditional public and private nonprofit colleges, they were more sanguine, mostly focusing instead on expanding federal financial aid programs to make those schools less expensive. They, too, were reluctant to pursue strong new federal policies aimed at holding accountable those colleges with low graduation rates and low rates of student loan repayment.
Despite their ever-widening differences, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have something in common: both parties are beholden to the colleges and universities that provide jobs, economic development, and social capital in their home states and districts. Many members of Congress are proud alumni of their state universities and give great deference to college presidents who lobby against regulation. The higher education lobby is a formidable force for preserving the status quo.
The movement to reform higher education is also facing a headwind in the form of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration, who have launched an aggressive deregulatory agenda, effectively giving away the store to for-profit colleges while starving the U.S. Department of Education of the staff and resources it needs to monitor a system that serves twenty million college students every year. DeVos's desultory enforcement of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2015, has already become one of the biggest barriers to moving HEA forward. As the HEA is to higher education, ESSA is to K-12 education, and it represents one of the last major bipartisan compromises on a comprehensive piece of education legislation. So Democrats point to the Department of Education's mishandling of ESSA implementation as a reason their Republican opponents can't be trusted to negotiate a deal on higher education.
With virtually no House Democrats willing to support her legislation, Foxx has to rely on Republicans to get to the needed 218 votes. All indications are that the votes aren't there, so the bill has yet to be brought to the floor. Things are even worse in the Senate, where Foxx's counterpart, Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and the powerful chairman of the Senate's education committee, has held three hearings on reauthorization but produced no bill. Over the summer, he effectively threw in the towel, announcing that the Senate would not take up the reauthorization of the HEA this year, given political differences...