The Higher Education Act (HEA), the law that helps students finance their postsecondary education, has not been reauthorized since 2008. A lot has changed in the last 11 years, including higher education, and the law that was passed in 2008 is no longer responsive to the challenges facing today’s students. The next HEA must address the needs of students as they navigate higher education, and do so in a comprehensive way. There are a lot of interrelated parts of the law – financing, accountability, accreditation, data – that cannot be tackled in isolation without considering the sum of higher education’s parts. A piecemeal approach will undoubtedly lead to unintended consequences.
HEA reauthorization is an opportunity to respond to the changing landscape of higher education. The average amount of debt students are taking on to attend college and graduate school continues to climb. More than ever, students need comprehensive, timely and accurate information about not just where to go to school, but also what it’s going to cost and what their options and resources are for repayment.
Gone are the days of thumbing through an oversized paper guidebook to figure out which college is the right fit. Students today have a wealth of online information at their fingertips, but it is incomplete as a result of a provision in the 2008 law that banned the creation of a federal student-level data system. Overturning the ban would give students and families access to more complete and disaggregated data on institutional outcomes, such as completion and job placement rates, that are crucial to helping them determine which school is the best fit and a good investment. The most recent version of the House Democrats’ HEA bill, the College Affordability Act, addresses this issue head on by overturning the ban.
But better outcomes data is not enough. Students also need to know, clearly, what their investment is truly going to cost. Currently, schools are limited in how often they can require students to engage in loan counseling. Requiring comprehensive annual loan counseling would help students make well-informed decisions and be fully aware of the implications of borrowing, and it does not have to increase the burden on schools. Without this kind of counseling, many students are not paying attention to their cumulative loan balances from year to year, and they don’t know what their monthly payments will be after graduation or what repayment options they’ll have available to them.
The next reauthorization of HEA must also place some emphasis on supporting graduate students. As much as student demographics and technology have shifted and changed in the last decade, so too has our economy. More jobs now require an advanced degree. Yet, policymakers have cut benefits to graduate students or made other policy choices that make the cost of obtaining a graduate degree more expensive, despite the economic and societal benefits graduate degree-holders provide to our nation.
For instance, in 2011 Congress eliminated subsidized loans for graduate students. Doing so can cost a graduate student thousands of dollars in additional debt. Congress should restore graduate students’ eligibility for subsidized student loans, and the College Affordability Act does just that.
Also, the newest income-driven repayment plan – Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) — requires borrowers with federal graduate school debt to be in repayment five years longer than those with only undergraduate debt. While there is bipartisan support for simplifying the income-driven repayment plans from five down to one, any changes made to these plans should ensure that students are not penalized for taking on student debt to finance their graduate education.
In addition to rolling back policy changes that have already been made, Congress should not advance proposals that would harm not only graduate students, but society more broadly. While implementation of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program over the last two years has laid bare the need to improve the program, calls to cap or eliminate it are shortsighted and could hurt communities that are already struggling with access to adequate legal representation, healthcare and other vital services that require a graduate degree.
What used to be a once-every-five-year opportunity to overhaul the higher education system is now looking like a once-in-a-generation chance to do so. We cannot let it slip away. The next HEA reauthorization must be comprehensive, it must meet the needs of students in today’s vastly different world, and it must re-invest in graduate students.
Nancy Conneely is the director of policy at AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence.