House Democrats start work on student aid measure

Republicans argue bill would limit flexibility

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, touted the Democrats' college costs bill at a press conference on Oct. 15, 2019 in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Democratic-led House Education and Labor Committee on Tuesday began debate on a sweeping overhaul of federal student loans and other higher education programs, but without bipartisan support. 

Among numerous other provisions, the 1,165-page bill would expand Pell Grants, tweak the Federal Work-Study Program, direct more aid to minority-serving institutions, emphasize campus safety, and set several new requirements designed to hold institutions — particularly for-profit colleges — accountable.

At a committee markup, which is expected to last up to three days, Democrats lauded the bill as a desperately needed solution to a mounting student debt crisis.

It would reauthorize the Higher Education Act for the first time since 2008, and seek to fulfill a pledge by Democrats to address the rising costs of college education, while pushing back on the Trump administration's support of for-profit schools. 

“Unfortunately, more than 50 years after the HEA’s original passage, the promise of an affordable college education is out of reach of many Americans,” said Robert C. Scott, the panel’s chairman. “A quality college degree remains the surest path to financial security and a rewarding career.”

[Sen. Bernie Sanders bill would forgive all college debt]

Republicans, who fervently opposed the bill and a Democratic substitute amendment, argued that it would only serve to throw money at a system that isn’t working and prevent students from using their aid on educational programs they believe are best for them.

“Democrats spend other people’s hard-earned money with reckless abandon,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the panel’s ranking member. “This bill gives tens of billions of dollars to colleges instead of investing directly in students and trusting that students and their families know what is best for them.”

The measure has not yet been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but committee Democrats estimate that it will cost roughly $400 billion over 10 years.

The Democratic substitute amendment, offered by Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-Calif., would increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $625. It would also permit graduate and professional students to access subsidized loans, replace the six-year statute of limitation on defaulted loans with a cap on collection fees charged to defaulted borrowers, and allow part-time faculty who teach at least two courses and aren’t employed elsewhere to access Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Davis said the substitute amendment would “send the message to our nation’s students that everyone should have access to higher education,” noting that the Pell Grant increase outlined in the amendment would be the highest since the program was enacted.

Republicans were poised to offer dozens of amendments to the underlying measure, including a 685-page competing substitute amendment by Foxx.

She said their plan would emphasize college completion, simplify student aid, encourage transparency in price and outcome, and remove bureaucratic barriers imposed by the federal government.

“We believe that we should not be pouring additional hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money into colleges instead of students,” said Rep. Lloyd K. Smucker, R-Pa.

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