ACE Senior Vice President Terry Hartle spoke before the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training yesterday at the hearing “Keeping College Within Reach: The Role of Federal Student Aid Programs” as Congress prepares to consider reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), the primary law governing federal higher education programs.
Congress last reauthorized HEA in 2008 with passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act—five years late and after an unprecedented 14 extensions of the statutory deadline. The current reauthorization expires at the end of 2013.
Hartle's testimony provided an historical overview of federal higher education policy and drew upon that history to identify lessons learned for the HEA debate. As Libby Nelson pointed out in Inside Higher Ed, the issue that rose to the top from Hartle’s statement and the testimony of the other panel members was how to simplify the complex federal financial aid system, beginning with the application process, the long and complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Hartle called efforts to ease the process “the holy grail of each successive reauthorization” and said that while simplification might be desirable, it is highly complex.
“First, simplification can be expensive,” he said. “It would be easy to streamline FAFSA by simply asking for less information from applicants, but doing so would inevitably make more individuals eligible for aid and increase the cost of the federal programs. Second, efforts to simplify the federal student aid system often run headlong into a desire to create more options to help students and families. For example, the federal government now offers student loan borrowers seven different loan repayment options. Multiple options may well make for more choice for borrowers, but it significantly increases program complexity.”
Panelists also discussed at length the problem of state disinvestment in higher education and its role as a driver of college costs, calling on Congress to hold states accountable for maintaining or increasing their spending on public higher education.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also held a hearing yesterday that signaled the beginning of the HEA reauthorization process. A webcast of that hearing, “College Affordability: The Student Lens,” can be viewed on the committee’s website.