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House Education Committee Clears Three Higher Ed. Bills

The Education and the Workforce Committee Thursday morning cleared the first three of what will be several small, targeted bills aimed reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

All three of the measures passed on a voice vote with support from members on both sides of the aisle, a rare occurrence that followed Wednesday's passage of the bipartisan workforce development bill by the full U.S. House of Representatives.

The markup process wasn't without Democratic pushback, however.

A slew of committee Democrats, including ranking member George Miller of California, and Reps. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, John Tierney of Massachusetts, Tim Bishop of New York, and David Loebsack of Iowa, called attention to the fact that while each bill would be beneficial for students and their families, and each had bipartisan backing, none of them addressed what they consider to be the real problem: sky-rocketing college tuition and student-loan debt.

"[These bills] are not a substitute for really getting into the gut ... of higher education affordability," said Courtney. "It's not enough in terms of us actually addressing what is probably the most important decision middle class families are facing."

"This is great what we're doing now, and we're doing it on a bipartisan basis, which today is very rare," added Loebsack. "But we need to do much, much more."

To that end, Democrats offered a single amendment to each bill, highlighting their priorities for a higher education overhaul.

The first bill (H.R. 3136) would allow students enrolled in programs that use a competency-based learning system, versus a traditional credit-hour system, to be eligible for federal financial aid. Essentially, students who progress through competency-based systems based on a direct assessment and measurement of what they've learned, as opposed to how many credit hours they've earned. The idea is to get students their degree more quickly, thereby decreasing the cost of tuition.

Tierney offered an amendment to the bill that would allow student borrowers to refinance their debt at the current, lower interest rate that people with loans on cars and houses are able to get. The measure would be paid for by implementing what's widely known as the Buffet Rule, a tax increase on wealthy individuals.

Unsurprisingly, Tierney's proposal was blocked. Kline reminded committee members that Congress passed a bipartisan fix to the federal student-loan rate last summer, and concluded that the best way to help graduates struggling to repay their loans is to get the economy revving again.

The same proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was blocked in the Senate in June. 

The next bill (H.R. 4983) would streamline the amount of information currently available to students and their families regarding estimated college costs, loan options, and potential repayment plans. The Obama administration has prioritized transparency on these issues and launched several tools to help students better navigate potential costs. But the members on both sides of the aisle agree the information available is excessive and sometimes confusing.

Miller offered an amendment to the bill that would also require the reporting of an institution's dropout and loan-repayment rates, and the employment rates of their recent graduates.

Kline slammed the amendment for collecting the same data the Obama administration has proposed to use in its gainful-employment regulation, which aims to curb bad actors in the for-profit college sector by allowing federal student aid to flow only to institutions with favorable graduation, repayment, and graduate employment rates.

The final bill (H.R. 4984) would increase financial aid counseling for students and families entering the college-application process.

Democrats Mark Takano and Susan Davis, both of California, offered an amendment to the bill aimed at protecting service members and their families from being poached on by some for-profit colleges looking to collect on their G.I. bill tuition assistance.

Under the law, for-profit colleges can only reap 90 percent of their profit from federal student aid; the other 10 percent must come from other sources. However, because G.I. benefits, like tuition assistance, are drawn from the Department of Defense, and not the Education Department, they aren't considered federal student aid and therefore aren't counted in the 90 percent. This loophole has lead some bad actors to prey on service members and their families in an attempt collect on their one-time tuition assistance.

Democrats have been trying to close this loophole for years and the same proposal is included in a draft of the Higher Education Act reauthorization from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The amendment was handily rejected, however, with Kline underscoring the important role that some for-profit colleges play in allowing nontraditional students, like those serving oversees, to obtain postsecondary degrees.

Stay tuned for Kline to roll out the next series of bills. Kline said he hopes the bills cleared through the committee Thursday will move to the chamber floor for a vote by the full House quickly. But with just 13 legislative working days before Congress breaks for its five-week summer recess, it's unclear whether that's feasible.

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