Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., sitting next to ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sit down at the start of a hearing looking at ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Alexander said he is open to discussion on whether the federal government should dictate standardized testing or leave it up to states. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) accomplished something few of their colleagues in Congress could during the past year: pass bipartisan legislation.

The pair worked tirelessly to craft a deal that would reform K-12 education, dismantling the controversial No Child Left Behind law that required schools to show academic progress through standardized tests or reckon with a series of penalties. Reaching a compromise was no cake walk, but Alexander, chair of the education committee, and Murray, the committee’s ranking member, pulled it off.

Can they do it again for higher education?

Congress is in the early stages of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the sweeping legislation that among other things governs federal financial aid. The 50-year-old law was last reauthorized in 2008, five years after it was set to expire. This time, the law was supposed to sunset at the end of 2013, but legislation extended it through 2015.

In the midst of an election year, the chances of Congress producing a comprehensive bill that could garner enough bipartisan support in both chambers to pass are slim. Still, this year could bring about changes to higher education policy at the margins, driven in part by Alexander and Murray’s agenda.

The senators sat down with The Washington Post, in separate interviews, to talk about their higher education ambitions for the coming year. Here are their answers to selected questions:

What are your objectives going into this reauthorization?

Murray: For me, there are a couple goals for reauthorization. One of them is how we can make college more affordable. And I want to have that conversation. I believe it has to be part of it. There are some things we already agree on, one is reducing the length of the FAFSA form, which as we all know is a barrier to college. I think there’s agreement coming around the issue of college campus safety, we can get bipartisan support on that. As we move along, one of the things I believe has to be a part of this is college affordability. If we can all come together on that, we can get something done.

Alexander: Really two things. One is to make it simpler and less expensive for students to attend college. And two, to cut through the jungle of red tape that is strangling administrators and wasting money at our 6,000 colleges and universities across the country. The number one problem is the 108-question application form that 20 million American families fill out every year. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and I have legislation to cut the 108 questions to two questions. It discourages a lot of students from going to college, takes away time from advisers and high school guidance counselors who could be advising students about their high school careers.

There are financial aid officers who would argue that two questions are not enough to capture the information needed to distribute aid. How do you plan to address those concerns?

Alexander: They may be right and we’re listening carefully to that. The president has identified 30 questions that he thinks can be removed, but the end result will be closer to two than 108. A president of a community college in Memphis told me he thinks he loses 1,500 students a year who are intimidated by the complexity of the form or their parents or grandparents won’t fill it out, so they don’t go to college. And these are the very students we hope to attract.

Murray: We’re talking a lot about it. We don’t have a final agreement on it. We both agree it needs to be simplified. It’s not as simple as just make it into three questions. There’s obviously information that’s important in that. It’s stunning to me that this has to be done by legislation. But we are working on this.

Will we see any legislation move this year?

Murray: We have had a number of meetings. Everybody is enthusiastic. I think everybody understands that these issues are important. They’re listening. And if the Republicans are willing to work with us, I think we can get something done.

Alexander: Yes, there’s no reason we shouldn’t. We’ve been holding hearings for a year. The things we could do this year is reduce the complexity of the ridiculously complicated student aid application form. We could enact what I call the Mikulski report, which is a set of recommendations by a group of higher education officials on how to reduce red tape. We have at least three dozen of those recommendations that have bipartisan support.

We should be able to simplify the number of loans. There are now too many types of loans, and Sen. Bennett and I have introduced legislation that would reduce it to a single undergraduate loan. We would take the savings from that and have a year-round Pell grant, so students can go through more rapidly.

And we should simplify the student loan repayment program. There are nine different ways to pay back your federal student loan. Many students simply aren’t aware of how generous it is. They’re not aware, for example, that you can elect to pay back only 10 percent or 15 percent of your disposable income and after 20 years, what’s left is forgiven. Or they’re not aware that if they go to work in a public service job, such as an assistant district attorney in their hometown, and they stay there 10 years the balance of the loan is forgiven.

All of those things we should be able to do this year. And then there are a number of other subjects, which have bipartisan support, that we should be able to do some work. One is campus safety and sexual assault. One is on different ways to discourage over-borrowing. For example, not allowing part-time students to borrow as much as full time students. Sometimes students borrow more than they need and they can’t pay it back. Accreditation reform [is another subject]. There are a large number of proposals we agree on. There’s some we don’t agree on. I think we’re ready soon to begin to take up some of these bills in committee, report them to the floor and hope that the Senate acts on them this year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn’t said whether he would be willing to act on anything in the higher education space. Do you have any intel that he will?

Alexander: What Sen. McConnell has told me — and he said last year about elementary and secondary education — was that if it’s bipartisan, it’s important for the American people and it was something the president will sign, he’ll find time for it on the floor. So that’s our challenge. We can certainly make a list of things we don’t agree on. But what we did last year with elementary and secondary education is focus on the 80 percent of things that we did agree on. And on simplifying student aid, on simplifying loan repayment, on year-round Pell, on campus safety and several others we should be able to have bipartisan agreement. And in that event I hope Sen. McConnell will find time for it.

Sen. Alexander, you mentioned accreditation. Is there any agreement on how to reform the system?

Alexander: There’s some. We live in such an interesting and innovative world that we should give the accrediting agencies more flexibility to adapt to new forms of learning, like online learning, which may speed up learning and reduce costs. Another recommendation is to make the accreditation reports available publicly so people can examine them to refocus accreditation on learning and quality. A lot of the laws governing accreditation have focused on other things, the financial ability of the school. That’s not really the accrediting agency’s job. The accrediting agency’s job is to make a determination about the academic quality of the school, not a lot of extraneous matters. Another proposal has been to end the regional monopolies to create more competition among the accrediting agencies and give individual institutions more choices.

The Department of Education has asked Congress for leeway to set and enforce accreditation guidelines. Would you give it to them?

Alexander: I’m skeptical of giving the U.S. Department of Education too much to do. We have the best system of higher education in the world. Taxpayers contribute $130 billion this year in grants and loans to help students afford to go there. We didn’t get there because we directed colleges and universities what to do from Washington. And we just went through last year an exercise where both Democrats and Republicans agreed we need to move more decisions out of the U.S. Department of Education and back in the hands of local educators. I’m more inclined to look for solutions that decentralize higher education, that deregulate it and that make it simpler and easier for administrators, students and the 6,000 colleges to make their own decisions.

How do you plan to make colleges more accountable in the cost equation?

Alexander: We could do two things: One is to discourage over borrowing. To do that we need to take the federal handcuffs off colleges and universities that now prohibit them from advising students fully about the cost of college and the cost of their loans. Second, we need to explore giving colleges and institutions that participate in the student loan program the ability to put limits on the amount of loans a student can take out. If the student wants to borrow an unreasonably high amount to enroll in an art school, someone might have to say to the student: “You do have to pay them back, and you might not not have a good job drawing five years from now.” But at an engineering school, it might be different. And as I said before we could discourage over borrowing by not allowing part-time students to not borrow as much as full-time students. Another way to help the institutions to be more responsible would be for them to have some skin in the game. There is bipartisan support for requiring institutions who participate in the federal student loan program to have some accountability for students who default on their loans.

There’s support for skin in the game, but there seems to be a lot of confusion about what accountability exactly means and who it would apply to. What are you envisioning? 

Alexander: There is confusion because it’s not easy to do. And probably the way to do it is to come up with two or three options that institution might choose. We have to be very careful of that because we might have the unintended consequences of restricting access to campuses of some of the students who we’d most like to attract to colleges and universities. We don’t want to penalize students, but we are looking for the right way to cause institutions to be more accountable for the loans that they’re making. That problem we haven’t solved yet.

Are you at all concerned that it being an election year will put a damper on getting these things done?

Alexander: It could, but taxpayers still pay our salaries and I don’t think we have the year off. Last year, when the president signed the bill to fix No Child Left behind, I had dinner with a Democratic senator the night before and he said “I wouldn’t put the odds at better than five to one against you getting that done last year.” I told Arne Duncan that when he called me the next day, and he said I would have said 10 to 1. So I don’t know what the odds are here, but we’re going to do our best.

Murray: The sooner we can come together on something like this the better we all are. Every year that students aren’t going to college is another year of economic impact, to them, to their family and our country.