Congressional Hearings Look at Accountability, Priorities for Higher Ed
April 11, 2019

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held the latest hearing yesterday in a series of panels on issues that will be addressed in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited the House Committee on Education and Labor to discuss her department’s priorities for higher education. 

The Senate HEA hearing focused on accountability, following a House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment hearing on the same topic last week. The HEA, the single most important piece of legislation overseeing the relationship between the federal government, colleges and universities, and students, was last reauthorized in 2008.

Both the House and Senate hearings took a wide-ranging look at the roles of the so-called accountability triad—the federal government, states, and the accreditors—that is charged with ensuring students receive a quality education. 

Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) discussed the accountability proposal he outlined earlier this year in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, where he proposed a single accountability system to replace the current patchwork of regulations—including the 90/10 rule, which caps the percentage of revenue an institution can receive from federal financial aid sources at 90 percent. He also expressed disapproval of the cohort default rate as a marker of institutional accountability, given that it does not take into account the one-third of borrowers who are not yet in default, but who are not making their payments on time. 

“We need more effective measures of accountability, but I don’t want the federal government acting as a national ‘school board’ for colleges, telling states and accreditors, boards of directors and institutions, how to manage the 6,000 colleges and universities,” he said in his opening statement. 

For her part, Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) said “We have to ensure that our reauthorization of the Higher Education Act includes an accountability system that is as nuanced as our schools and our students.”

Witnesses discussed issues including how poor accountability standards disproportionately affect low-income and minority students and the waterfall effect unpaid loan burdens have on students and taxpayers. The panel included Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University; Adam Looney of the Brookings Institute; David Tandberg, vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at State Higher Education Executive Officers Association; and Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tina Smith (D-MN), brought up the issue of predatory practices in the for-profit higher education sector, and asked the panel if they believe the current accountability system does enough to protect students that are enrolled at institutions that are at a high risk of closing abruptly.

During the last Congress, in response to a call for comments by the Senate HELP Committee, ACE and 47 other higher education associations outlined seven principles that represent broad goals of the higher education community for reauthorization. Read that statement here and a webcast of yesterday’s hearing here.  

DeVos Visits Capitol Hill

Department of Education (ED) Secretary DeVos answered questions on a range of concerns in a hearing yesterday, including her department's budget plans, proposals to aid charter schools and private schools, and whether education officials are adequately processing claims against higher education institutions whose students say they were misled or defrauded. 

It was the first chance Democrats, now in charge of the committee, had to question DeVos since taking majority control of the House in January, and they spent over five hours doing so.  

One of the primary issues under the microscope was how the department is implementing its own “borrower defense to repayment” rules, which officially took effect last fall after ED lost a legal battle to delay them. The rules, finalized in the last months of the Obama administration in 2016, govern loan forgiveness for defrauded borrowers and are intended to make it easier for those students to receive loan forgiveness. ED is preparing to release a revised proposal to overhaul the rules in the coming months. 

Reps. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Andy Levin (D-MI) were among those questioning the secretary on why ED has failed to process any borrower defense claims, opting instead to delay or close them instead. Levin noted that about 158,000 students were waiting on claims for student loan forgiveness to be processed.

ED has not approved any of the thousands of borrower defense claims sitting at the agency since the summer, DeVos acknowledged.

As The Wall Street Journal wrote this morning, the “slow-walking tactic” allows the department to effectively achieve the “goal of stalling those initiatives despite losing legal challenges.”