Sen. Lamar Alexander Releases Sham Effort to Reform Higher Education: What Our Partners and Allies Think

Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has released the latest text of his piecemeal plan to reform the Higher Education Act (HEA). 

Though a reauthorization of the HEA is sorely needed to update the rules and funding for colleges, student financial aid, and borrower protections, any claim by Senator Alexander that this legislation is a suitable reauthorization is a sham. While the bill has some important provisions—including support for minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and a partial repeal of the ban on Pell grants for currently incarcerated individuals, it rejects almost all other needs of future, current, and former postsecondary students and borrowers. These glaring omissions reveal Sen. Alexander’s total disconnect from the struggles that students and borrowers face, and highlight his lack of willingness to solve the issues of affordability, access, and quality for current and future students.

For-profit and predatory colleges disproportionately target low-income students and students of color, and Sen. Alexander’s abdication of responsibility for the corruption of these institutions leaves these students at serious risk.

Higher Ed, Not Debt and Generation Progress, with our coalition of partner organizations, will continue to fight for a proper authorization of the HEA. Here is what we and our partners have to say in response to this latest announcement.

The full statements by organizations are accessible via hyperlinks.

American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten

“Bipartisanship may be shriveling in Washington, but education has been an area in which Sens. Murray and Alexander have regularly forged agreements. I deeply respect and have worked with Alexander in the past, so it’s doubly disappointing that he would introduce an inadequate package of higher education bills that short-circuit comprehensive reauthorization by excluding protections students so urgently need…While the bill includes some stand-alone elements we’ve been calling for—fixes for HBCUs and MSIs and simplifying FAFSA—it is silent on our most urgent priorities, including Public Service Loan Forgiveness, college affordability and boosting state investment.”

Center for American Progress Associate Director of Postsecondary Education, Antoinette Flores

 “Our higher education system is failing students and taxpayers. Rather than make meaningful change, this proposal would increase the max Pell Grant for the most low-income students by just $20. Rather than holding schools accountable for helping students get to and through school and prepared for jobs that will help them repay their debt, this proposal includes no measures to hold schools accountable for the outcomes they produce. For more than a decade Congress has kicked the can down the road on reauthorizing the HEA, all the while students sink deeper into debt—a burden disproportionately shouldered by people of color and low-income individuals. While there are a few positive provisions, the time for half measures is over. Congress must pass a comprehensive HEA reauthorization that reflects the needs of students and taxpayers.” 

Center for Responsible Lending Senior Policy Counsel, Ashley Harrington

“It’s disappointing that Senator Alexander has blocked critical funding for HBCU’s and other minority serving institutions. His narrow set of policy proposals doesn’t offer the substantive, long-term solutions borrowers desperately need. HBCUs and MSIs across the country are underfunded, understaffed, and under resourced. College is only getting more expensive every year, student borrowers are struggling to make payments, and servicers and for-profit colleges are getting free rein to mistreat their customers and students. As this crisis exacerbates the racial wealth gap and constrains an entire generation of taxpayers, we need a real plan to address these important issues. We hope Senator Alexander reconsiders his position of holding hostage funding for HBCUs, MSIs, and the students of color that they serve and invites advocates to the table to create a real agenda that tackles education and student loan debt reform.”

Generation Progress Communications Director, Charlotte Hancock

“It is critical that we pass a reauthorization of the HEA; however, this bill package falls far short of what is needed, which does a disservice to both the vital provisions that are contained within it as well as to the students and borrowers who critically need a real HEA reauthorization.”

“We appreciate that necessary reforms, including expanding opportunities for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals and providing much-needed funding to MSIs and HBCUs, have become part of bipartisan education conversations—and we will fight to ensure that these reforms are enacted. However, we still need an HEA reauthorization that addresses the critical issues facing current and future student loan borrowers. We must reject this shameful attempt from Sen. Alexander to pit criminal justice reform and student debt advocates against each other when what we need are solutions that will address all forms of injustice in our higher education system.”

National Campus Leadership Council Policy Director, Ernest Ezeugo

“While Chairman Alexander’s proposal reflects students’ demands for better data and simplifying FAFSA, the package fails to meet the scope of challenges facing today’s students. In March, a national coalition of student-led organizations representing more than 6.1 million college students, now called the Student Policy Alliance, called on Congress to advance a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that improves affordability, centers on equity, and strengthens civil rights. The proposed package does little more than tinker with student aid. Moreover, America’s students, particularly those at minority-serving institutions, deserve better than the political maneuvering used to advance this proposal. We urge lawmakers to immediately extend urgently needed MSI funding and quickly return to negotiating a comprehensive, student-centric reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.​” 

National Consumer Law Center Director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, Persis Yu

“Students and borrowers need real, wholesale reform of the Higher Education Act to make it easier for borrowers to succeed in student loan repayment and ensure that falling behind does not threaten families’ financial security. We also need to hold institutions accountable for misconduct as well as to provide relief to harmed students and empower students and borrowers to vindicate their rights. Senator Alexander’s piece-meal approach ignores this urgent need for reform and attempts to hold hostage funding that is expiring for historically black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions that should be addressed separately. We hope that Congress will reject this bill and work towards a real solution for struggling students and borrowers.”

Student Debt Crisis Executive Director, Natalia Abrams

“Student Debt Crisis strongly opposes the piecemeal plan to reform the Higher Education Act (HEA) as introduced by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander. The so-called ‘Student Aid Improvement Act’ fails to address the urgent needs of 45 million Americans hurt by the student debt crisis… Senator Alexander’s proposal restricts student loan borrower’s options when enrolling in a federal income-driven repayment plan and would limit borrower’s ability to access affordable monthly payments. On top of that, it is estimated the plan would increase Pell Grants for low-income students by just $20. This is what the senator calls an ‘improvement.’ We don’t. “

 The Education Trust Vice President of Higher Education, Wil Del Pilar

“The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) is of vital importance to millions of students who currently struggle to afford college, lack adequate supports while enrolled, and are underserved by a system that perpetuates racial inequity. Students need a federal policy overhaul that addresses these issues and acts to close racial and socioeconomic equity gaps, and they can’t afford to wait any longer… There are some positive developments in the bill introduced today, including streamlining and simplifying the FAFSA. We are pleased to see a repeal of the ban on Pell Grants for students in prison, but we urge a lifting of the ban that includes and protects all students. Senator Alexander and Senator Murray should work together on a bipartisan and comprehensive approach to improve this proposal.”

The Institute for College Access & Success President, James Kvaal

“Congress should reject Chairman Alexander’s piecemeal higher education proposal and instead immediately and separately renew expiring funding for minority-serving colleges and universities, and then get back to work on a bipartisan, comprehensive Higher Education Act bill.

“While Chairman Alexander’s proposal includes some worthy ideas, our students deserve more.

“The high cost of college perpetuates deep racial and economic equity gaps in college access and attainment. Students and parents borrow $100 billion a year to pay for college, and more than a million people default on their loans each year.

“We must seize the opportunity afforded by a full reauthorization to invest in college affordability, reduce the burden of student debt, and protect students and taxpayers from low-quality institutions.”

Third Way Senior Vice President for Social Policy & Politics, Lanae Erickson

“Comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a decade overdue. Senator Alexander’s piecemeal proposal lacks the type of strong transparency and accountability measures needed to protect the huge investments students and taxpayers are making in higher education. It also stands to expose students to undue risk by failing to close the 90-10 loophole that encourages predatory institutions to target military veterans and by allowing Pell Grant dollars to flow to unproven short-term job training programs that use up students’ aid and leave them earning less than the typical high school graduate. We believe that the Senate should follow the House’s lead and pass the FUTURE Act immediately to secure funding for MSIs before it expires on September 30 — and then pursue comprehensive HEA reform focused on improving quality and value across the entire higher education system.”

Veterans Education Success, and 21 Veteran & Military Service Organizations

“Today, Chairman Alexander’s statement to pursue a piecemeal approach to a reauthorized Higher Education Act (HEA) is a disappointing departure from the comprehensive negotiations many military and veteran serving organizations have repeatedly asked for on HEA reauthorization. Our disappointment is compounded by his statements ignoring our long-standing, repeated requests to close the 90-10 loophole… Closing the 90-10 loophole must be included in any HEA efforts, a priority shared in a letter earlier this year signed by 37 organizations. Ignoring such a long-standing and widely supported request to close the 90-10 loophole and bring parity to student protections for military-connected students hurts service members, veterans, and their families. Not closing the 90-10 loophole is a deal-breaker for military and veteran serving organizations.”

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