House Democrats introduce HEA reauthorization bill

By Kermit Kaleba, Katie Spiker, October 17, 2019

On October 15th, Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, introduced the College Affordability Act, a comprehensive reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act (HEA). The new 1200 page bill lays out a range of Democratic priorities for HEA, including the establishment of a new federal-state partnership to support free community college tuition, increased Pell grant funding permanently indexed to inflation, and expanding eligibility for federal financial aid to underserved populations, including incarcerated individuals, and DACA and DAPA recipients. The bill also includes new oversight rules for for-profit institutions, takes steps to try and rein in student debt, requires the Secretary of Education to establish a debt-to-earnings threshold for certain training programs similar to the Obama Administration’s “gainful employment rule” and strengthens rules around campus safety.

Importantly, the bill reflects a number of National Skills Coalition’s policy priorities for HEA reauthorization as outlined in our Community College Compact, a set of proposals to increase postsecondary access and success for working students and other non-traditional students, and support better engagement of businesses with our higher education system. Specifically, the bill would:

Expand access to Pell Grants for high-quality short-term programs

Sec. 4013 of the CAA would expand eligibility for Pell Grants to postsecondary workforce programs that provide at least 150 clock hours of instruction over a minimum of eight weeks, as long as those programs meet a variety of quality assurance standards. Current law limits Pell eligibility to programs of at least 600 hours over a minimum of 15 weeks.

National Skills Coalition has long supported making it easier for jobseekers to access federal financial aid for high quality short term programs at community or technical colleges and has endorsed the bipartisan Jumpstart our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act. The CAA language mirrors much of the JOBS Act framework, although it does add a variety of additional program requirements that are intended to address stakeholder concerns regarding program quality and student outcomes. While NSC is concerned that some of the proposed additions may place significant burdens on already under-resourced community and technical colleges as they seek to meet the needs of today’s students, we share Rep. Scott’s commitment to supporting only high quality programs and credentials, and we appreciate the Chairman’s leadership on this critical provision.

Make higher education and workforce outcomes data comprehensive and transparent

As more and more jobs require some form of postsecondary education or training, it is increasingly important for jobseekers, employers, colleges, and policymakers alike to be able to understand which programs are providing the skills and credentials that lead to success. To this end, National Skills Coalition has endorsed the bipartisan College Transparency Act, which would lift the current ban on federal student record systems, and allow program-level reporting on student outcomes both during and after participation in postsecondary education. Sec. 1022 of the CAA largely mirrors the language of the College Transparency Act, and would represent a critical step towards increasing the availability of critical postsecondary data. We applaud Chairman Scott’s decision to include CTA as part of this broader reauthorization proposal.

Ensure the success of today’s college students by strengthening support services

States and postsecondary institutions across the country are working hard to implement career pathway models that provide nontraditional students with the services they need to persist and succeed. However, federal support for student supports has historically been relatively limited. To address this challenge, National Skills Coalition endorsed the bipartisan Gateways to Careers Act, which would provide dedicated funding to career pathways partnerships between community colleges, workforce partners, and adult or secondary education partners to support a range of programs and student services.

The CAA does not directly adopt the grant program outlined under the Gateways to Careers Act, but the bill does make a number of important investments in student supports that are consistent with that legislation, including:

  • The establishment of an emergency grant program at eligible public and private non-profit institutions participating in the federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program, which would allow students to receive assistance in response to financial emergencies
  • Expansion of the Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools (CCAMPIS) program, which supports campus-based child care programs
  • The establishment of a new Community College Student Success program, which would provide $1 billion annually to support efforts to increase student completion, including through financial assistance and the provision of academic and career counseling
  • The establishment of a new remedial education reform grant program that would provide roughly $160 million in grants annually to support evidence-based strategies – including accelerated learning models – that allow students to reduce time to program completion.

National Skills Coalition applauds the Chairman for inclusion of these provisions, which we believe would enhance opportunities for working adults and other non-traditional students.

Provide targeted funding for partnerships between community colleges and businesses

Across the nation, employers in a range of industries rely on partnerships with community and technical colleges to develop their workforce and stay competitive. Congress has not invested in these partnerships at a scale that would sustain economic competitiveness since the expiration of the Trade Adjustment Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program in FY 2014.

National Skills Coalition has endorsed the Community College to Career Fund Act, which would provide dedicated funding to support these critical industry-college partnerships. The CAA does not directly adopt the grant program outlined in CC2CF; however, it does authorize $181 million per year in additional funding for postsecondary programs provided under the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V). These new funds must be used to support partnerships with local workforce and educational entities and may be used to support the development and implementation of industry or sector partnerships as defined under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. While not exactly mirroring the language in CC2CF, we believe the proposed expansion of Perkins postsecondary funding is consistent with our recommendations under the Community College Compact and our 2015 recommendations for Perkins reauthorization.

Next Steps

The introduction of CAA comes less than two weeks after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, introduced his own scaled-back HEA reauthorization bill, the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019. Sen. Alexander’s proposal has been criticized for focusing on a narrower set of policies than the more comprehensive reauthorization envisioned under CAA, but the bill likely serves as a starting point for negotiations on the Senate side as the two chambers look to potentially reconcile their competing versions and produce a compromise bill. National Skills Coalition looks forward to working with the committees as they continue these discussions to ensure that any final reauthorization bill includes the four priorities outlined in the Community College Compact.