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Updated Higher Education Law Could Impact Data, Access for K-12 Students

For some time, lawmakers have been pondering what should go into a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Now GOP lawmakers overseeing education issues in Congress appear set to take another crack at updating the law, which was last renewed in 2008.

In a recent story, we looked at some issues lawmakers will be tackling in a refreshed HEA that are likely to have an impact on public schools, and in particular those students who are preparing to make the transition from secondary to postsecondary life. It's clearly on Sen. Lamar Alexander's mind—the Senate education committee chairman and Tennessee Republican recently told us that reauthorizing the law will be his committee's "major focus" over the next year. 

Among those issues are what kind of information about colleges and universities prospective students will be able to see. The Obama administration released a new "College Scorecard" with information about debt loads and graduation rates. But it's based on a limited pool of information, and skeptics question whether the information is particularly useful (or used often) by prospective students.

There are related questions about whether a refreshed HEA will change policies governing the use of individual student data for research and other purposes. And Congress may decide to make Pell Grants (aid to help low-income students attend college) more flexible in some respects, something Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos highlighted briefly in a speech to community colleges last month. 

Alexander and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Va., the chairwoman of the House education committee, have also both expressed general disdain for the maze of red tape that they say trips up colleges and universities. A report from a 2015 task force with bipartisan backing could prove to be the touchstone for any HEA reauthorization from Alexander. President Donald Trump, while on the campaign trail, promoted student-loan forgiveness under certain conditions, but also pushed for colleges to have some "skin in the game" (or a financial stake) in student-loan financing.

In the background is whether there's any fallout from the big and at times nasty fight over DeVos' confirmation. In particular, observers and advocates will be watching to see how well Alexander works with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the education committee's top Democrat, to craft an HEA rewrite, after Murray fought Alexander tooth and nail over DeVos' qualifications and the process by which she was confirmed. 

"A big question is, do they decide to take a bipartisan approach like they did with [the Every Student Succeeds Act]? Or do they decide to go it alone?" said Phillip Lovell, a vice president at the Alliance for Excellent Education, which promotes college- and career-readiness.

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