Opinion Pieces

Higher Education Reform Becoming a Reality

Higher Education Reform Becoming a Reality
By Rep. Glenn Grothman
Dec. 15, 2017

As the year comes to an end, Congress is still working for you. Most recently, the House Education and the Workforce Committee, of which I’m a member, has turned its attention to reforming higher education.

The Higher Education Act hasn’t been reformed in almost a decade. Since that time, the higher education landscape has changed greatly, and the American workforce is facing a shortage of skilled workers. Additionally, tuition rates have risen, forcing students to accrue more and more student loan debt.

That’s where the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act comes in. The PROSPER Act aims to promote innovation, access and completion in higher education; simplify and improve student aid; empower students and families to make informed decisions about higher education; and ensure strong accountability among institutions with limited federal involvement.

Most recently, the PROSPER Act passed out of the Education and the Workforce Committee, which means it will now head to the House floor for a vote and  is one step closer to becoming law.

I have three amendments included in the bill, including an amendment that will help institutions across the country adopt Competency Based Education (CBE) programs, which are programs that allow for flexibility in higher education by letting students progress in their education based on mastery of a topic, not on how much class time is spent covering a topic. We have a very successful Wisconsin FLEX Option that is available to students in the University of Wisconsin System. The inclusion of the CBE amendment was one of my top priorities and it will directly benefit non-traditional Wisconsin students who are enrolled in the FLEX program.

The original version of the PROSPER Act made great strides in defining CBE under federal law, by defining “competency” in CBE as the “knowledge, skill or characteristic demonstrated by a student in a subject area.” My amendment amended this definition by replacing “characteristic” with “ability” to make the definition more clear, as well as to reflect competency more accurately.

The amendment also allows student aid to be distributed in unequal amounts based upon the progress being made by students in their academic programs, and ensures that institutions do not provide aid to students in CBE programs who simply take assessments based on prior knowledge and gain no actual instruction from the institution.

Additionally, the amendment streamlines the list of requirements that CBE programs must meet to remain accredited and maintain their integrity. The original version of the PROSPER Act was written in such a way that it would have potentially invited significant new regulations on CBE program reviews, which could have discouraged institutions from implementing such programs.

Me second amendment assures that institutions will annually affirm to the Secretary of Education that they have counseled students on the terms and conditions of their student loans, as well as any other financial aid a student may receive under the Higher Education Act. Paying for college is one of the most important financial decisions a young person makes, and it’s essential students understand the terms and conditions of any and all financial aid they receive.

My final amendment requires the Secretary of Education to study the impact of the Pell Grant bonus. In the U.S., the federal government spends more than $30 billon on the Pell Grant program per year – nearly twice the amount we spent on the Pell Grant program just a decade ago. The inclusion of this amendment will help make certain that the bonus is actually accomplishing its purpose of encouraging students to finish their degrees on time. The inclusion of the Pell Grant bonus is a big policy change, and it’s essential that Congress provide and require of the Department of Education effective oversight to understand the effects of the Pell Grant bonus program.

Unfortunately, two of my amendments were not included in the final version of the bill, but I hope that the ideas behind them will be included in future legislation down the road.

I, with bipartisan support, put forth the idea of eliminating the $300 Pell Grant bonus. As Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-Va.) noted, a financial bonus of $300 would most likely be ineffective in helping Pell Grant recipients. This amendment unfortunately failed on a 20-20 vote, with all Democrats on the committee voting in favor.

I also wanted to require institutions to pay a five percent fine to the Department of Education based on the amount of student loans taken out by their students that are not being paid back. While students are ultimately responsible for the on-time payment of their loans, requiring that institutions have skin in the game incentivizes the schools to make sure that their students are educated and fully equipped to pay back their loans upon graduation.

The PROSPER Act is a win-win reform that ensures institutions of higher education are working for the benefit of their students, and that students are empowered and accountable. I look forward to it becoming law.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman is serving his second term representing Wisconsin’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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