The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Debt-free college? House Democrats introduce higher education bill


House Democrats this week are expected to unveil a sweeping plan to make college more affordable by reducing debt and simplifying financial aid. The Democrats’ plan would also endeavor to boost graduation rates.

The proposal counters a Republican bill that aims to overhaul the law that dictates the federal government’s role in higher education. The Higher Education Act, originally passed in 1965, is supposed to be renewed every five years but was last reauthorized a decade ago. The debate has been closely watched, with members of both parties agreeing that college costs impose an enormous burden on students and families. But with a polarized Congress, compromise has proved elusive.

Democrats are proposing to give students the chance to earn a degree without debt, in part by creating a state-federal partnership that calls on states to provide two years of community college tuition-free. In exchange for federal funding, states would have to promise to invest more in higher education — and maintain those investments.

But such a requirement would probably face pushback even in some states with liberal-leaning politicians, said Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. In many states, legislators shift money from higher education to other areas in which spending is mandated. “Taking away that flexibility would be a nonstarter in many states,” he said.

Overall, the Aim Higher Act proposal from Democrats — like the House Republicans’ bill — is political messaging, Kelchen said, with no major higher education legislation likely to get through this Congress. Lawmakers from both parties were speaking to their bases, he said. “It may serve as a litmus test for people running for president in 2020,” Kelchen said.

Republicans had pushed a plan that would lessen taxpayers’ burden in financing higher education, eliminating some student aid programs. It also sought to encourage schools to be more responsive to employers’ needs.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that if the Republican bill were adopted, college students stood to lose $15 billion in federal aid over the next decade.

“The Aim Higher Act is a serious and comprehensive proposal to give every student the opportunity to earn a debt-free degree or credential,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “It provides immediate and long-term relief to students and parents struggling with the cost of college, it puts a greater focus on helping students graduate on time with a quality degree that leads to a rewarding career, and it cracks down on predatory for-profit colleges that peddle expensive, low-quality degrees at the expense of students and taxpayers.”

The Democrats’ proposal would expand federal aid to low-income families by increasing Pell Grants and tying them to inflation so that the value doesn’t diminish over time.

It would protect a program that erases the remainder of loans of graduates who have worked in public-service fields and expand that initiative to farmers and employees of veteran service organizations.

The Democrats’ bill would also strengthen oversight of for-profit colleges. It would increase federal funding for programs aimed at helping vulnerable students, including the homeless, those leaving foster care or students caring for children of their own.

“When you consider the amount of money and the number of people that participate in some way in the student aid program, this is the type of legislation that will affect millions of students and even more families,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, who emphasized that he was speaking based on summaries of the bill provided by the committee because its final wording was not available Monday.