All I Want I for Christmas…

By Staff

Unfortunately, what I would like to have seen by Christmas this year is something nobody is going to get: a reauthorized Higher Education Act (HEA). With Congress headed home for the holidays, it’s safe to say the Higher Education Act will join the long, long line of expired federal education legislation at the end of 2013. POLITIO notes that the act is in good company: With ESEA, IDEA, WIA and Perkins and more all expired, there are no major pieces of federal education legislation that aren’t overdue for renewal.

The Higher Education Act was originally passed by Congress in 1965 to increase financial resources provided to colleges and universities by the federal government. The law requires that the act be reauthorized every five years to change and add to the existing policies to keep up with evolving educational systems. With 2008′s reauthorization due to expire at the end of this year, the act was being reviewed by the Senate Education Committee for a five year renewal.

No one knows when Congress will actually finish renewing it or how the deep partisan divide that pervades Capitol Hill will complicate what is already a lengthy process. Last time around, it took five years to renew the act after it expired. While the Higher Education Act expires at the end of 2013, that date isn’t a hard deadline — the law will remain in effect, and no one is going to be particularly surprised by a delayed reauthorization.

As the U.S. Senate’s education committee formally began the process of updating the massive law governing federal student aid back in September, its chairman laid out a straightforward plan: hold 12 fact-finding hearings over the next several months and then produce a draft Higher Education Act by early next year.

But a number of obstacles stand in the way of that goal, put forth by Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who leads the panel. In this Congress, the education committees are also mired in the process of updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Further complicating the timeline for the Higher Education Act were comments by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is the senior Republican on the education committee. Alexander said he had asked his staff to consider drafting a new Higher Education Act “from scratch.”

Such an approach is not “an ideological exercise,” he said, but an attempt to ease the regulatory burden on colleges that he said has multiplied with each recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Alexander said that the obligations for colleges that had piled up were stunting innovation in higher education, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The first of 12 the panel plans to hold, was focused on the on the multi-layered system the federal government uses to oversee colleges and universities receiving federal student aid. The system, known as “the triad,” involves a web of requirements placed upon institutions by the U.S. Education Department, state regulators and accrediting bodies.

At the federal level, colleges and universities have long complained that they are unduly burdened by an array of legislative and regulatory obligations that are often confusing and unevenly enforced by the Education Department.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, suggests that before piling on additional responsibilities for colleges, Congress ought to commission an independent review of the existing approval and eligibility process that institutions go through to participate in the federal student aid programs.

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is taking place against the backdrop of an Obama administration proposal to develop a rating system for colleges based on student outcomes and value.

The Education Department announced in September that it had begun an effort to gather input on how to develop metrics for those rating system. The administration plans to develop and implement a ratings system by 2015, but it will need the help of Congress to implement its ultimate goal of linking a rating system to federal student aid dollars.

That affordability theme also permeated early hearings on the triad, perhaps foreshadowing a larger battle over how, and whether, to use the Higher Education Act to prod colleges to keep down costs.

Several Democratic have Thursday questioned whether the interlocking oversight triad of federal, state and accrediting bodies had gone far enough to keep down the costs of college.

So I guess, I’ll just scratch the HEA reauthorization off of this year’s list and ask Santa for it next year.

Merry Christmas, everyone!