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Policy & Advocacy

Higher Education Policy

APLU HEA letter image
Priorities Document

Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act

As members of Congress consider reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, APLU has developed a series of higher education policy proposals we ask Congress to consider. From the need for better transparency and accountability of colleges and universities to improving federal student aid to support access and degree completion, the proposals detailed in APLU’s priorities are aimed at improving student success while enhancing our nation’s economic competitiveness. Our nation has a rich history of recognizing higher education as vital to individual and societal advancement. From the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, to the GI Bill of 1944, to the Higher Education Act of 1965, to the Post-9/11 GI Bill of 2008, policymakers have wisely sought to make a college education–and all of the many benefits associated with it–available to as many people as possible. But more must be done.

A college education has never been more important and more valuable to individuals and society at large. It has been well documented that bachelor’s degree holders experience significantly greater employment opportunities and much higher earnings potential and, in turn, contribute far more in taxes over their lifetime than those whose highest completed level of education is high school. But the benefits extend well beyond a paycheck. A bachelor’s degree recipient is nearly four times less likely to be a smoker, much more likely to report being in very good or excellent health, and nearly five times less likely to be imprisoned. All told, college graduates’ overall reliance on government programs is estimated to be 39 percent less than those with only a high school diploma. College graduates are also more engaged citizens–voting and being politically active at much higher rates, volunteering in their community more often, and more significantly contributing to charitable causes.

APLU strongly believes Congress should prioritize college access, affordability and success with creative and sound proposals, including among other things, a meaningful federal-state government partnership. Public colleges and universities must be front and center for our nation to meet its educational attainment goal of having 60 percent of working age adults earn a quality postsecondary degree or certificate. For that to be possible, however, it is critical that federal policies ensure support for our public colleges and universities, so that they may remain accessible, affordable, and continue to offer world-class quality education.

Highlights from APLU's HEA reauthorization priorities include:


    APLU President Peter McPherson sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, and House Committee on Education and the Workforce Ranking Member Bobby Scott raising serious concerns with the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Higher Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, H.R.4508. In the letter, McPherson noted APLU’s strong opposition to the bill in its current form. The House Committee on Education and Workforce approved the measure last month.

    The association also sent the lawmakers a document detailing its top concerns with the PROSPER Act along with a shorter summary.

    In the letter to lawmakers, McPherson notes, “As we continue to review the bill, it is clear the measure is presently highly problematic and would ultimately make college less accessible and affordable. Additionally, it would make students more vulnerable to schools and programs that would not serve their best interests. The legislation adopts many of the recommendations of the Taskforce on Federal Regulation of Higher Education, but then adds new highly problematic regulatory burdens. While there are provisions APLU supports, cumulatively, the legislation would be an alarming setback from present law.”

    The full text of the letter is below and can be downloaded here.

  • Strengthen Federal Student Aid

    The federal government’s investment in student aid through Title IV of the Higher Education Act is indispensable for students accessing higher education. This is an investment to not only provide ladders of opportunity for individuals to fulfill the American Dream but also an investment our country makes to ensure a prosperous future for all. Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act provides an opportunity to strengthen support for students to access higher education and build a better future.

    • Pell Grants: Pell Grants are the cornerstone of needy students financial aid. APLU urges Congress to prioritize extension of Pell mandatory inflation adjustments in HEA. Some policymakers have proposed broadening eligibility for new short-term programs and unconventional companies/institutions to gain access to Title IV including Pell. APLU urges caution. While there may be some new programs that could provide valuable opportunities to students particularly in the space of workforce development, it is critical to be mindful of the evidence of the investments which have too often failed for students and taxpayers in recent years. Access to Title IV must remain appropriately protected or the appeal of federal dollars will further attract unscrupulous actors.
    • Student Aid Simplification: APLU has also been greatly concerned about some proposals to “simplify” federal student aid. While APLU has no objections to simplification in concept, it is important recognize that aid programs often serve unique not redundant purposes. The private market is not a viable alternative to the federal financial aid system. The federal government’s role is both advantageous to students and our nation by fostering broad access to higher education.
    • Graduate Education: A graduate degree is increasingly seen by employers as a necessary credential. Many of the skilled jobs of today require a level of education and training that goes beyond an undergraduate degree. Some policymakers seemingly dismiss the need to support graduate education because of the expectation that the students will earn significantly more over their lifetimes. Some recent examples of how federal policy changes have disadvantaged graduate students include the repeal of in-school interest subsidies for graduate students, the higher interest rates graduate students pay on direct loans, higher origination fees for PLUS loans, and most recently, the loss of eligibility for Perkins loans. These should be reversed so that undergraduate and graduate students alike are strongly supported.
  • Transparency of Higher Education

    Comprehensive, accurate data on student outcomes at each college and university in the U.S. are considerably lacking. We simply do not know enough. As a result, students and families are left in the dark as they make the critical decision about which college or university to attend; policymakers struggle to appropriately hold accountable institutions receiving taxpayer dollars; and institutions lack the information they need to assess their performance and improve. Congress should include the College Transparency Act, H.R. 2434/S. 1121, within HEA reauthorization to fix the problem.

    While the U.S. Department of Education’s revamped College Scorecard provides salary information, the data is not very useful and can be misleading. The Scorecard provides one aggregate salary figure for each institution, and in some cases aggregated across an entire campus system, rather than breaking out the data by academic program. Further confusing the matter, the aggregate salary figure averages the earnings of individuals who earn a degree with those individuals who left without a degree – bringing down the average and obfuscating the economic benefits of earning a college degree.

    Student-level data is also needed to provide accurate persistence and graduation rates for postsecondary students. Because of the prohibition against student-level data, the federal government is unable to reliably and consistently report the outcomes of students after they transfer and has only recently added minimal reporting for part-time students. This is a huge problem since nearly 55 percent of those who earn a bachelor’s degree attend more than one institution and over 60 percent of students at community colleges attend part-time. Those students are not counted and most people looking at the College Scorecard and other transparency sites have no idea that the data is so incomplete. Only 47 percent of postsecondary students meet the “first-time, full-time” criteria of the federal graduation rate.

    APLU was deeply engaged in the development of The College Transparency Act (CTA), H.R. 2434/S. 1121. CTA appropriately balances concerns about privacy and security while providing the key information needed by students and families, policymakers, and institutions. APLU strongly urges Congress to include CTA within HEA reauthorization.

    Student Achievement Measure:  As the federal graduation rate is often used as an indicator of student success and institutional performance, there is a lack of comprehensive and accurate information for prospective students and their families, for policymakers, and for institutions themselves. The Student Achievement Measure (SAM) is a voluntary initiative that helps to fill the information gap by providing a set of progress and completion outcomes for full-time, part-time, and transfer-in students who attend one institution or multiple institutions. Developed as a cross-sector initiative in 2013, the SAM project is as collaboration among six higher education associations and is led by APLU and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). SAM currently has more than 600 participating institutions that represent 38 percent of the undergraduate enrollment in the United States. The SAM metrics are an effective short-term solution that provides helpful information to consumers, policymakers, and institutions. However, the larger challenge remains – lifting the ban on the collection of student-level data so that more accurate and comprehensive outcomes measures (like the SAM metrics) could replace the current federal graduation rate and be used for all institutions.

  • Encourage States to Reinvest in Public Higher Education

    Polls consistently show college affordability as an area of substantial anxiety for Americans. Their anxiety is understandable. Tuition at all institutions, public and private, has increased well beyond inflation. While tuition is higher, public institutions throughout the nation have worked diligently to keep in-state tuition affordable. For example, on average full- time, in-state students paid $3,980 for tuition and fees in 2015-16 as compared to $14,890 at a private university. Postsecondary education remains the best investment people can make in themselves as well as the best investment government can make in the future of its citizens. Additionally, public institutions provide the most affordable way to realize the lifetime of benefits that come from a higher education.

    APLU strongly supports the establishment of a federal-state partnership in which the federal government incentivizes states to reinvest in public higher education. In our view, this is the most effective policy solution the federal government can enact to improve higher education access and affordability for the vast majority of students and families. Students at public institutions comprise nearly three quarters of all those enrolled in postsecondary education.

    APLU supports the partnership program included in the 2014 Higher Education Act reauthorization bill, the Higher Education Affordability Act from the 113th Congress, S. 2954. We also support the main concept behind Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) PARTNERSHIPS Act, S. 2191. In general, we think the ideal approach would be as simple, voluntary and non-punitive as possible, in order to defend the program from charges of federal overreach and micro-management of state policy. At the same time, the incentive in the bill—the federal match— should be configured in a manner that would create real benefits for states stepping up to partner with the federal government. While appropriate safeguards should be put in place to ensure funding is properly used, we think a partnership program should focus on the core concept of state reinvestment and minimize the inclusion of additional provisions to accomplish other policy goals as such provisions may reduce

  • Strengthening Title IV Institutional Eligibility

    The federal government should expect more from its investment in higher education. The U.S. Department of Education has a trillion dollar loan portfolio, extends over $100 billion in new student loans each year, and provides more than $30 billion annually in Pell Grants. These programs and efforts are essential for a vibrant, successful, and diverse higher education system. Higher education is one of the most critical investments our nation can make for economic growth, global competitiveness, and social mobility. Yet, despite both the size and importance of its investments through Title IV of the Higher Education Act, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and tax credits, the federal government does not do enough to hold poorly performing institutions accountable. Targeted reforms are needed to improve the stewardship of taxpayer dollars and protect students who may attend institutions that saddle them with debt without providing an education that helps them succeed.

    Comprehensive Approach to Institutional Eligibility

    APLU recommends a comprehensive overhaul of the current institutional eligibility system to develop a more robust process that fairly evaluates institutional performance for the allocation of Title IV funding and better protects students and taxpayer expenditures. Ideally that process would include a limited set of meaningful outcome metrics, such as the following.

    • Student progress and completion rates: The rates used to judge the educational success of an institution’s students should be a comprehensive measure, such as provided through the Student Achievement Measure (SAM),xiv rather than the incomplete and misleading federal graduation rates.
    • Post-collegiate employment and other outcomes: Employment rates, enrollment in an advanced level of education, and military service are indicators of the quality of the education provided by an institution.
    • Loan repayment rates: Student loan repayment rates are an earlier and better indicator of students’ ability to pay down their debt than loan default rates and less prone to manipulation. (For example, Corinthian Colleges reduced their three-year CDR from 29.2% in FY2009 to 18.7% in FY2010, a 10.5 percentage point decrease in just one year. The reduction in the default rate was possible by moving large numbers of students into forbearance status. This manipulative practice would have no impact on repayment rates.)
  • Differential Accreditation: Focus Accreditor Resources Where Most Needed

    Regional accreditation has been a long standing and important way to assure the public that educational institutions meet expected standards of quality. What began as a voluntary system to provide these assurances has developed into a more complex system that performs many additional functions. The Higher Education Act has not kept up with changes in the role of accreditors nor the new tools to assess institutional performance and risk to students and taxpayers. The Corinthian example unfortunately highlights the critical need for accreditation reform.

    A differential or “risk-based” approach to accreditation is part of the solution. This new approach should include two core concepts:

    1. All institutions should go through the accreditation process, but consistently high achieving institutions should not go through the same burdensome and expensive process as low performing institutions. Accreditor resources should be focused where they are needed the most and not unnecessarily expended on the high-performers.
    2. Accreditors should use more outcomes data as part of their process, e.g., graduation rates, employment outcomes, loan default and repayment rates.

    As part of a differential accreditation approach, the process should move toward using more performance outcome measures as indicators of quality. Such indicators are to be part of all accreditation processes and for those institutions with high performance results, could serve as the basis for alternative, flexible review processes. For many institutions, going through the accreditation process is needlessly time-consuming and costly, distracting attention from advancing the institution’s educational, research, and outreach missions.

  • Protect Student Veterans and Servicemembers: Close the 90/10 Loophole

    The 90/10 rule within the Higher Education Act precludes for-profit colleges and universities from receiving more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal student aid. However, the rule does not include revenue from Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) student aid. This loophole has had significant repercussions, making servicemen and women and veterans targets of aggressive recruitment campaigns by some unscrupulous institutions.

    The 90/10 rule was developed to be a quality assurance indicator for an institution through its accountability to the free market. We understand that DOD and VA educational programs differ in character and standing from the Department of Education Title IV programs and are generally considered entitlements provided to active military service personnel and veterans; however, with some institutions receiving nearly 100 percent of their funding from federal sources, that quality assurance metric is invalidated. This change will assist in protecting veterans and other students by offering a more comprehensive assertion of educational institutional quality.

  • Campus Safety and Security: Combatting Sexual Assault

    Providing a safe learning and work environment for students, faculty, and staff is of paramount importance to our public universities and is necessary for institutions of higher education to be truly successful in their public service missions of education, research, and outreach. To universities, Clery Act statistics are not just numbers on a page; they are their students. Public universities welcome a partnership with the federal government in ways that will enhance the tools universities have to combat campus sexual assault and buttress the extensive efforts by institutions to address the problem.

    Legislative efforts to address campus sexual assault, such as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA), have received significant attention. While CASA includes some positive ideas to help combat campus sexual assault and newer versions of the legislation are significantly improved, we believe further improvements should be made. We caution against a one-size-fits-all approach that assumes immense similarities among the over 4,000 accredited colleges and universities across the United States. Legislation should account for existing and effective institutional policies and/or local or state laws that govern how campuses are to address sexual violence. The most successful legislation would set clear federal priorities and provide institutions with support and flexibility to meet such requirements with efforts that best fit their student and campus characteristics. This approach would ensure that resources are used to their greatest effect for students’ well-being.

  • Higher Education Regulations: Modernize, Streamline, and Focus

    APLU recognizes the strong need for effective federal regulation of institutions of higher education to protect the public interest. It is acceptable that some regulations be expensive and burdensome provided the need for the regulation outweighs the costs. As an example, APLU has stood out within the higher education community for not supporting the repeal of gainful employment regulations, which while imperfect, do help protect the public from failing academic programs and institutions. Not all Department of Education regulations are as essential, however.

    There are numerous examples of regulations that significantly and needlessly add to the operating costs of institutions, which ultimately distract from and drive up the price of providing education to students. To review the impact of federal regulations on higher education institutions and recommend solutions to streamline them, a bipartisan group of senators, including Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Richard Burr (R- NC), appointed 16 diverse higher education leaders to the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education. The Task Force made more than 50 specific recommendations for easing the regulatory burden on institutions without compromising legitimate federal oversight. Congress and the U.S. Department of Education should act on the recommendations to aggressively and often abusively pursue military and veteran students.

  • Global Learning Should Not Be A Luxury

    The Department of Education’s International and Foreign Language Education (IFLE) programs are essential to producing U.S. area studies and foreign language experts who can navigate and excel in an increasingly interconnected world. As scientific, economic, and technological challenges become ever-more global in nature, excellence in less commonly taught languages and cultural studies is imperative to ensure the United States can collaborate and compete. Exposure to foreign language and culture improves grade point averages and completion rates, as well as employability and career skills. When afforded the opportunity to attain global competencies, students are best poised to strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness, address global challenges that have no borders, enhance national security and diplomacy, preserve international leadership, and respect the value of multiculturalism. Title VI programs are also vital to connecting U.S. campuses and students to the world. This partnership between universities and government ensures a steady supply of specialists with deep expertise exists so that the United States is prepared to meet expanding diplomatic and national security needs. Federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Commerce, and State depend upon the Title VI education infrastructure in order to further their respective goals.

    APLU encourages reauthorization of six currently funded Title VI programs: National Resource Centers; Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships; Language Resource Centers; Centers for International Business Education and Research; Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Programs; and American Overseas Research Centers.

    Expand Study Abroad Opportunities for Undergraduate Students

    No international education experience is as transformative for students as study abroad. There is simply no match for inspiring students to think globally. Consistent with the goals of the study abroad commission established by Congress and chaired by APLU President Peter McPherson, known as the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, the next administration should make the expansion of study abroad opportunities a priority.

    The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, H.R. 4379 and S. 601, introduced by Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Wicker (R-MS) and Representatives Bustos (D-IL) and Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), would create a new study abroad program within the Department of Education.