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Will midterm elections lead to higher ed reform?

While House Democrats push affordability agenda, divided control of Congress could cause gridlock
University Business, December 2018

Education played a key role in state and federal congressional races, and placed second among issues promoted in gubernatorial campaign ads.

Twenty new governors took seats from incumbents, while Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives. 

Policy analysts said several gubernatorial candidates won on the promise of reforming higher ed systems to provide affordable college pathways to in-demand jobs.

Healthcare and the economy drove voters to the polls, but a number of winning candidates proposed tuition-free or debt-free college in exchange for a student’s commitment to live and work in the state.

Overall, midterm election results suggested widespread support for public education investment.

Per-student funding

Great Recession spending cuts in some states continue to create a difficult environment for restoring per-student funding for public higher education.

All but five states fund higher education at below 2008 levels on an inflation-adjusted, per-student basis.

The aggregate amounts to over $7 billion less than 2008, Michael Mitchell, a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said at a postelection event held by the Education Writers Association (EWA).

This has led to a “new normal”; students foot a larger share of tuition costs while state appropriations for public colleges continue to shrink, added Mitchell.

“It’s funny that we’re in 2018, and for higher education, we’re still talking about 2008 a lot,” he said. “Even though we’re seeing tax revenue rebound and come back pretty strongly, the reinvestment is not happening at this moment.”

As state-level budgetary pressures mount, policy analysts predict that Democrats who ran on the promise of free or debt-free college tuition will introduce measures that make college more affordable and ease debt. Lawmakers will also look to improve oversight of higher ed systems.

Capitol Hill watch

Most observers express cautious optimism that Congress will tackle the long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Leadership changes, meanwhile, could give House Democrats an opportunity to advance their legislation, and they are expected to push for more generous support for students and borrowers by increasing Pell Grants and making loans more affordable.

Republicans currently control HEA reauthorization. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., will likely take over as chair of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, replacing Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who failed to get the reauthorization bill on the House floor for a vote.

The House Democrats’ HEA reauthorization bill, the Aim Higher Act, would also add new requirements for institutions and increase reporting requirements.

In terms of renewal, however, “it’s a very heavy lift,” says Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly and editor of its recent article, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Higher Education Policy.”

A renewal is not likely to happen in the next Congress, adds Glastris, who served as special assistant and speechwriter to President Bill Clinton during the 1998 midterm elections.

After all, HEA is “a huge, complex and controversial piece of legislation,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, at the EWA event.

Divided control of the next Congress will complicate matters, he said. Even under Republican control, lawmakers have had difficulty reaching consensus and getting things done. “They will be able to do even less in this Congress,” Hartle said.

“The Democrats in the House will have a very expansive view of what they want to do in higher education, particularly around student access, and the Republicans in the Senate will not want to go that far,” which will create a decision-making bottleneck, he added.

Continued concerns: Financial aid, international enrollment

Congress may also soon review Borrower Defense to Repayment and Gainful Employment regulations, as the Trump administration continues to overhaul and eliminate federal rules.

On another front, Congress may try to reverse the declining enrollment of foreign students, Hartle said. “The U.S. appears to be a much less desirable place to study.”