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GOP retools higher ed. Less regulation, more job training

Charged with updating the Higher Education Act, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce came up with the PROSPER Act -- Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform. The bill passed out of committee last night after a 14-hour contentious session. The bill goes now to the full House.

The main question: Will students actually prosper under the sweeping reforms?

Broadly, PROSPER emphasizes job skills and training and prioritizes the fastest routes from classroom to employment. If, as Republicans contend, postsecondary education institutions have shortchanged career and technical education, this bill promotes it. And where Democrats saw Obama's regulations on for-profit colleges as protections, the bill treats them as intrusions and eliminates them.

The sponsors issued a statement explaining: “With six million unfilled jobs and over a trillion dollars in student debt, simply reauthorizing the Higher Education Act will help no one. A hard truth that students, families, and institutions must face is that the promise of a postsecondary education is broken. We need a higher education system that is designed to meet the needs of today’s students and has the flexibility to innovate for tomorrow’s workforce opportunities. The PROSPER Act is higher education’s long overdue reform.”

The 542-page bill prods students out of classrooms into internships, apprenticeships and work-studies. It creates opportunities for students to participate in industry-led earn-and-learn programs, allows Pell Grants for shorter-term programs to move recipients into the workforce faster and broadens work-study options and business-to-institution partnerships.

While the bill sets out to simplify processes, it’s a dense piece of legislation that touches on many aspects of postsecondary education including how students apply for federal aid. Its proposed reforms to lending practices and its retreat on regulations of the for-profit college industry are meeting with criticism. The bill adopts a buyer-beware approach to the for-profit college market, which has been characterized by abuses and misleading practices.

“The bill.., increases monthly payments and eliminates the current fixed forgiveness point. It also adds a minimum monthly payment, whereas the Obama-era plans allow for borrowers at certain incomes to pay nothing at all, recognizing that other demands on their income such as food and housing should take priority. As a result, many low-income borrowers pay a great deal more over a much longer repayment period. And for all the concern the bill’s authors have expressed about the 'maze of loan repayment options,' the PROSPER plan adds many complexities of its own,” wrote CJ Libassi, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Of interest to k-12 schools, the PROSPER Act does away with loan forgiveness for students who go into public service, ending such incentives as the TEACH grants. The TEACH program enticed education majors in high-need fields, including STEM, special ed and foreign language, to accept posts in low-income schools. The PROSPER Act axes the Teacher Quality Partnership Grant Program, which underwrote model teacher preparation programs to grow the pool of quality teachers.

Peter Greene, the educator behind the Curmudgucation blog, calls the bill "ugly'' and contends "it also changes the fundamental nature of higher education into something that really isn't higher education at all." Greene writes:

Student loans would be capped, so that students and their families would be limited in the amount of money they can borrow. So for many students, that would be enough for a "game over." The bill also rolls back loan forgiveness for those who spend a decade in the public sector, and loan repayments would no longer be adjusted to fit income levels. Working at a minimum wage job while trying to make your $600/month loan payments? Sucks to be you, college grad.

These changes favor people who are trying to use college as a profit center and students as their cash cows, so it fits that the bill also is a big fat wet kiss to for-profit colleges. The Obama administration had started to crack down on these predators (though they were none too quick about it). While Betsy DeVos's U.S. ED has been rolling back those rules, this bill goes a step further and prohibits U.S. EDs of the future from implementing "gainful employment" rules. Those were the rules that said if you were advertising your predatory college by promising jobs and nobody who graduated from your predatory college was actually getting jobs, the feds were going to stop handing you money. Various other rules will also be scrapped, like rules against giving student recruiters incentive pay for every sucker they managed to con into attending these predatory schools.  The reasoning seems to be that a bunch of rules unfairly affect for-profit schools, when the for-profits ought to get the same breaks as everyone else, because how are those folks supposed to rake in the money if they have to follow rules and stuff.

Writing in the Washington Post, Anthony P. Carnevale, director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, praised the PROSPER Act for assessing schools on how well their students fare in the marketplace, writing:

Rather than ratings based on colleges, regulators would focus on the earnings outcomes of academic programs and college majors. Consumers would get program level information, including completion rates, loan repayment rates and the average earnings that a graduate gets out of each program. The data would allow consumers to compare cost and earnings returns in the same major at different colleges — the differences between an economics degree from Harvard University and one from the University of Massachusetts. This is vital information to bring transparency to higher education, and help consumers make better decisions about post-secondary programs.

Carnevale's research has found the link between education and earnings is fraying. More education once meant a higher salary, but  Carnevale says more than 40 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees earn more than people with graduate degrees, and better than 30 percent of workers with associate’s degrees outearn the average holders of a bachelor’s degree.

Take a look at the bill and see what you think.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.