My priorities in the Higher Education Act

Standards for higher ed haven’t been updated since 2008

RECALL FOR A MOMENT sitting at your kitchen table in August of 2008 reading the paper. What are the headlines? “Presumptive Democratic Nominee Barack Obama Readies for Democratic National Convention in Denver;” “Russian Advance into Georgia Continues;” “Beijing Olympics Stun the World.” In the swirl of geopolitical developments, you may have missed some other news. August 2008 was the last time that the United States Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act (HEA). Today we have a special opportunity to update this critical bill once more.

You may be wondering why this is important. Originally passed in 1965, the Higher Education Act governs the administration of federal higher education programs. Its purpose is to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students to ensure that every individual has access to higher education, regardless of background or zip code.

This bill touches upon many of the very things that drove me to run for Congress in the first place: improving the quality of education by holding schools accountable for their students’ success through improved transparency; meeting students’ needs by expanding access to more flexible college options and stronger support to help them move into the workforce; and lowering the cost barrier that is keeping too many students from realizing their full potential.

Given that the Bay State is home to so many leading public and private colleges and universities, updating this legislation is especially critical. In fact, the Washington Post recently reported that smaller higher-ed institutions fighting for survival – especially in New England and the Midwest — may be hit hardest by the coming “Apocalypse” in 2026, when the applicant pool for colleges is expected to shrink by about 280,000.

As Massachusetts’ only lawmaker on the House Education and Labor Committee, I had the honor and responsibility of helping to craft this reauthorization bill. Our committee recently marked-up and voted to advance the College Affordability Act—a responsible, comprehensive overhaul of higher education that ensures students can spend less and earn more.

The legislation tackles many of the biggest issues in higher education by creating a federally funded partnership to incentivize states to waive community college tuition and fees, which would be a boon for community colleges across Massachusetts. The legislation significantly increases Pell Grant funding and indexes it to inflation so the value for students is not lost over time. It also allows borrowers to refinance their old debt at lower interest rates; cracks down on predatory for-profit colleges that defraud students, veterans, and taxpayers; and improves student safety on campus by blocking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ survivor-blaming Title IX rule and introducing stronger accountability measures to track and prevent cases of sexual assault, harassment, and hazing.

The bill also does right by historically underserved communities by permanently investing $300 million in mandatory funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other minority serving institutions.

On the campaign trail I talked a lot about the need to hold institutions accountable for their students’ success. That is why I am proud to have led the charge on several key accountability and transparency sections which were included in the legislation – provisions made all the more important in light of skyrocketing tuition prices and campus closures right here in our own backyard.

The Clean Data In Higher Education Act would provide clear and accessible data for families to use when assessing whether a particular college is the right fit for their needs. Additionally, my bipartisan Financial Aid Communication and Transparency (FACT) Act would ensure that all students receive clear, comparable financial aid offers from each institution they’re accepted to attend and during every year of enrollment. A college education will be one of the biggest financial investments many families or individuals will ever make; standardizing the way institutions present this information will empower students to make decisions that are right for them, without rolling the dice on their financial security.

And finally, the Strengthen CTE in Higher Education Act, which I introduced earlier this year, would authorize $200 million in funding to foster greater cooperation and alignment between Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs and educational institutions and employers. In short, this would help make sure institutions are training students for good-paying jobs that actually exist. All three of these measures were included in the final Higher Education Act.

Meet the Author

Lori Trahan

US Representative, Massachusetts Third District
I was the first person in my family to graduate from college – something I was only able to do because of an athletic scholarship. There are still too many students who, like me, face real cost barriers to continuing their education. That is why I am fighting so hard alongside my colleagues on the Education and Labor Committee to pass a comprehensive bill to help make sure that everyone has access to college and that, once there, receive an education that puts them on a path toward prosperity – not endless debt. A lot has changed since 2008, and Congress must not miss this opportunity to update our standards for higher education so all may thrive.

Lori Trahan is the congresswoman from the Third Congressional District.