What’s Next for Higher Ed Under the New Congress and Administration
While the results of last week’s elections may have caught some off guard, the question now on many minds is “what’s next?” President-Elect Donald Trump has given limited clues as to his stance on higher education issues.
On the campaign trail, Trump proposed moving to a single income-driven repayment plan for federal student loan borrowers. The plan would cap repayment at 12.5 percent of a borrower’s income, with forgiveness after 15 years of repayment. Additionally, Trump has expressed interest in college affordability and reigning in costs through regulatory reform, increased opportunities for postsecondary innovation, and examining tax breaks for colleges and universities with large endowments. Not many additional details known about these proposals.
Presently, higher education does not appear to be a priority area that the incoming Administration would look to address during the first months. Ultimately, the release of the Administration’s first federal budget request may provide additional details on policy priorities. While the President’s budget request is traditionally released in February, newly-elected Administrations often take longer to produce the document.
Who Will Be Our Federal Higher Ed Leaders?
Speculation over who may become the next Secretary of Education has only just begun. The Trump campaign never presented a comprehensive education platform, leaving few hints as to who may be chosen to lead the Department of Education. We do know who will be leading the transition team. William Evers, from the Hoover Institution will be leading on education for agency action with James Manning from the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid serving as deputy. On the education policy side, Gerard Robinson from the American Enterprise Institute will serve as the lead, with consultant Townsend McNitt serving as policy deputy.
Congressional Leaders for the 115th Congress
The picture is clearer regarding who will lead the congressional committees overseeing higher education. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is expected to remain as chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), while Virginia Foxx (R-NC) will likely become chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Both Foxx and Alexander have strong higher education backgrounds. Foxx is a former community college president and served as the chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training for several years. Alexander is also a former university president and served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush.
For the Democrats, Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) is expected to remain as ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will also remain as ranking member on the HELP committee. Given the experience and interests of the House and Senate education committee chairs, the federal higher education policy agenda may be, at least initially, driven by congressional leaders.
Leadership on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will see some changes. Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) is expected to take over as chairman of the committee, while Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) will remain as the ranking member. Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) will return as chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is expected become the new ranking member.
One of Chairman Alexander’s top priorities for higher education remains regulatory reform. Congresswoman Foxx has also expressed opposition to many of the regulations promulgated under the Obama Administration. While President-elect Trump has not spoken extensively on higher education, deregulation appears to at least be on his radar.
Regulatory reform may be one of the first areas the House and Senate education committees look to address in 2017. However, any regulatory package could be blocked if it cannot reach a 60-vote margin. The incoming Administration may also look to revise existing regulations either through executive action, guidance, or negotiated rulemaking. Some of the regulations that may be reformed include gainful employment, defining credit hour, state authorization of distance learning, borrower defense to repayment, Title IX, and teacher preparation.
Reconciliation and the Budget
A priority for the incoming Administration and Congress is the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). There is a strong possibility that Congress will look toward a budgetary process known as reconciliation to repeal the ACA. Reconciliation can be used to make adjustments to mandatory spending, revenues, and the debt limit. While there are limitations as to what can be done under reconciliation, it is not subject to filibuster. Hence, the Senate would only need a simple majority to pass a reconciliation package.
Congress used reconciliation in the past to pass the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, as well as portions of the ACA in 2010. Congress also used the 2010 reconciliation package to end the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, and used the mandatory savings to expand the Pell Grant program. Congress may utilize budget reconciliation in 2017 to make changes to the Pell Grant program, the federal student loan program, or higher education tax benefits.
In addition to budget reconciliation, Congress and the Administration may look to revise the current budget agreement that provides parity to the spending caps for defense and non-defense programs. The incoming Administration, as well as Congressional Republican leaders have expressed the desire to increase funding for defense programs. They could offset that funding through decreases to nondefense spending.
Higher Education Funding
Before the new Administration and Congress are sworn in, the current congress will have to address federal funding for fiscal year (FY) 2017. The current short-term funding resolution expires on December 9. Congress will have to act prior to that expiration to keep the government operational. They will have several options, including: passing a large omnibus package for FY 2017; passing several smaller mini-bus packages; implementing a yearlong continuing resolution that would largely level-fund programs; or passing another short-term extension.
Reinstatement of the year-round Pell Grant is still on the table for FY 2017. Additional information on year-round Pell, and what you can do to advocate reinstating the program, may be found here: http://perspectives.acct.org/stories/qanda-year-round-pell-grants.
Higher Education Act Reauthorization
Over the past two years, the House and Senate have made some headway toward the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The Senate held several hearings examining areas of the HEA, and had been reportedly working on a bipartisan package to address a few areas of the law. Additionally, the House passed several smaller bills addressing limited areas of HEA this summer. Chairman Alexander and incoming-Chairwoman Foxx will likely continue the process to reauthorize the HEA in 2017.
Areas the House and Senate have expressed interest in include FAFSA simplification, regulatory reform, accreditation reform, consolidation of repayment plans, and student aid counseling. They could also look to implement something on risk sharing, but at this point neither Alexander nor Foxx has endorsed a specific risk-sharing plan.
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