The Higher Education Act is currently up for reauthorization. Last year, the National Association of Scholars released a policy blueprint for the reauthorization called the Freedom to Learn Amendments. We proposed changes that would protect freedom of speech and religious freedom, promote fiscal soundness, reform federal student aid, and remove barriers to competition and innovation. We were pleased when the PROSPER Act, introduced by House Republicans in December 2017, took up many of our proposals. We provided a full review of the PROSPER Act in May 2018.
Now the House Democrats have released a competing reauthorization bill called the Aim Higher Act. This bill would ramp up federal spending on higher education, particularly for special interest groups, without providing incentives for colleges and universities to lower tuition. It props up higher education with more money rather than reforming its structural problems. It claims to offer every student “a path to a debt-free degree” but makes no meaningful changes to any of the federal programs that have driven up the cost of college.
The Aim Higher Act aims higher only in its ambition to secure more federal funding. It purports to put students first, but its main beneficiaries are special interests. The Aim Higher Act actually sets lower expectations for higher education.
The only bright point in the Aim Higher Act is that it adopts language proposed by NAS to require greater transparency regarding foreign donations to colleges and universities. We support this feature of the Aim Higher Act, though we are disappointed that it comes in the midst of other policy changes that we believe would be detrimental to higher education.
We analyze below how the Aim Higher Act compares in detail with NAS’s Freedom to Learn policy blueprint.
Free Speech – Unfulfilled
We called on Congress to address the growing free speech crisis on college campuses.
The Aim Higher Act is silent on free speech.
Freedom of Association and Religious Freedom – Unfulfilled
We urged Congress to protect the rights of student associations (especially religious ones) to determine eligibility for membership and qualification for positions of leadership. We also expressed support for the free exercise of religion, and the rights of religious colleges and universities to govern in a manner consistent with their religious mission.
The Aim Higher Act does nothing to protect freedom of association or religious freedom.
Accreditation – Unfulfilled
Accreditors function badly at evaluating academic program quality. We proposed that accreditation, which is required for an institution to receive federal student grants and loans, should focus solely on the fiscal soundness of a college or university. Institutions could then compete for optional, private academic accreditation to demonstrate the value of their programs.
The Aim Higher Act addresses accreditation only by inventing two new bureaucracies for no discernible gain.
The Act expands the Department of Education’s power by requiring it to evaluate institutions’ eligibility for Title IV—a task now typically performed by accreditors. And it requires “state authorizers” of higher education to collect student complaints, verify the upkeep of campus buildings, and verify that programs meet state licensure requirements.
NAS has long critiqued accreditation for being ineffective at holding institutions accountable. We have no confidence that expanding government bureaucracy will do any better. And we believe the concentration of power in government agencies will stifle rather than promote accountability and innovation.
The Aim Higher Act also attempts to use accreditation as a tool to increase student retention and decrease student debt. These problems deserve government attention, but not by the unwieldy tool of accreditation. These issues should be addressed by market incentives, such as making colleges co-responsible for student debts, which will give colleges a financial incentive to admit only students capable of graduating and securing a remunerative job.
Marketplace Competition – Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act further privileges establishment institutions by shielding them from marketplace competition.
The Act enacts stricter regulations targeting for-profit colleges and universities. It maintains the gainful employment rule, which requires a narrow subset of higher education institutions (mainly for-profit) to prove that their students can manage their debt—but imposes no such requirement on most nonprofit institutions. It also tightens the legal definition of a nonprofit institution, and imposes an onerous bureaucratic procedure on for-profit institutions that wish to convert themselves into nonprofits.
The bill also funnels money into public colleges and universities (particularly community colleges), making it harder for private colleges and universities to compete for students.
The Act offers increased federal funding to states that increase their own funding for higher education, conditioned on the states making two years of community college free for all students. In the guise of making college more affordable, the bill would divert students toward lower quality community colleges at the expense of four-year public and (particularly) private institutions, while its lack of effective cost controls would impose an enormous fiscal liability on both the federal and the state governments.
Academic Rigor – Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act worsens the problem of declining academic rigor by entrenching the false idea that everyone should go to college. It treats college as an entitlement.
The Aim Higher Act creates multiple new programs to increase federal education subsidies, including:
- Funding “expand[ed] opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities”
- Extending Pell Grants to prisoners
- Dramatically increasing the annual funding for on-campus childcare, from $16 million to $67 million
- Extending federal student aid to illegal immigrants
- Providing $150 million in annual subsidies for housing, financial aid, “wrap around services,” and other programs for students who have been homeless or in the foster care system
These programs support some students who may be academically prepared for college and who, with these additional aids, may flourish in their studies. But by creating a line of government funding for programs that the free market and private philanthropy should be able to cover, the bill will result in lowering academic standards. It encourages colleges and universities to admit students who are unprepared and unlikely to succeed, and to lower standards so that they can graduate.
In the Freedom to Learn Amendments, we specifically called on Congress to distinguish remedial education from college enrollment, and to make remedial courses ineligible for Title IV student loans and grants. We noted that supporting remedial students is only “superficially generous” because “the vast majority do not go on to complete a college degree.” The Aim Higher Act, rather than encourage ill-prepared students to seek rewarding and successful careers outside higher education, offers colleges grants to create “evidence-based remedial education reform strategies” in an effort to push remedial students along to graduation.
American History for Freedom – Unfulfilled
The American History for Freedom Program would support programs that teach traditional American history. NAS founder and board member Stephen H. Balch played a key role in the creation of this program, which was authorized in 2008 but has never been funded.
The Aim Higher Act does not reauthorize the American History for Freedom program.
One Grant One Loan – Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act keeps in place the needlessly complex system of multiple loans and grants—and goes so far as to resurrect one expired loan program, the Perkins Loan.
Cap on Student Loans – Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act increases students’ access to federal loans, further encouraging colleges and universities to increase tuition. The proposal, cast as an attempt to give students access to a “debt-free degree,” will mire students deeper in debt as colleges increase tuition to gain access to these additional federal dollars.
Skin in the Game – Unfulfilled
Colleges and universities should be financial stakeholders in students’ success. We proposed that colleges and universities that receive Title IV student loans, Pell Grants, and other student funding originating in or guaranteed by the Federal Government should be liable for thirty percent of repayment of the principal and interest in the event that a student fails to receive a college degree within eight years of first enrolling in any four-year program for which those funds have been employed, or five years of any two-year program for which those funds have been employed.
The Aim Higher Act fails to encourage colleges to aim higher in their admissions standards by giving them “skin in the game.”
Other Title IV Student Aid Reforms – Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act tinkers with Title IV only to expand federal tuition subsidies. These changes give the superficial impression that they make college more affordable—as perhaps they do, for the students fortunate enough to belong to the bill’s favored special interest groups. But the Aim Higher Act induces colleges and universities to increase tuition, and therefore makes college less affordable for most students.
The Aim Higher Act maintains and expands Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which unfairly privileges government employees and some nonprofit staff by offering to forgive their loans after ten years of payments. It also maintains two special interest programs that forgive student debt for teachers, the Perkins Teacher Loan Forgiveness and Direct Stafford Loan Cancellation programs.
The Act relaxes penalties for failure to repay, making it easier for borrowers to evade their commitments to repay their loans promptly and completely. It permits borrowers to make $0 “payments” if their income is below 250% of the poverty line.
The Act increases federal funding for Pell Grants without taking steps to protect against Pell Grant fraud or to ensure that Pell Grant recipients are prepared for college. Instead, it increases the maximum grant by $500, extends the grant eligibility to fourteen semesters, and permits students to use their Pell grants on graduate studies.
The Act retains other federal grants, including the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. It maintains the TEACH Grant (which provides up to $4,000 per year to students who agree to teach for four years at a school with a high proportion of low-income students) and expands the grant for “early childhood educators” and pre-school staff.
The Aim Higher Act would undo the Federal Work Study reforms proposed in the PROSPER Act. At a time when we have an excess supply of graduate students, the PROSPER Act appropriately limits Federal Work Study dollars to undergraduates. The Aim Higher Act would continue to provide Work Study for graduate students.
The Act simplifies the Free Application For Student Aid (FAFSA) form, a much-needed reform, but it does so by funneling more students into government aid programs. For example, it dictates that any student who received a means-tested Federal benefit in the previous two years will automatically qualify for a Pell Grant.
The only bright spot is that the Aim Higher Act attempts to make students more aware of the potential burden of student debt by requiring annual loan counseling for student borrowers. Colleges and universities would be required to disclose annually to students the total sum they should expect to borrow and their likely monthly debt burden.
Homeschooled Students – Unfulfilled
We proposed that homeschooled students who have finished the 12th grade should be added to Title I as an explicit category of fully qualified high school graduates. The Aim Higher Act fails to do so.
Foreign Gift Disclosure – Mostly Fulfilled
We are pleased that the Aim Higher Act adopts most of NAS’s proposal to subject colleges and universities to heightened scrutiny of foreign gifts. It lowers the threshold for disclosing foreign gifts to $100,000 (down from $250,000) in a given year—not quite as low as NAS’s proposed threshold of $50,000, but a substantial improvement.
The bill also requires colleges to disclose the value of in-kind gifts such as textbooks, and it requires colleges to disclose the legal name of the foreign person or institution making the gift.
We applaud the Aim Higher Act for including these important steps to make foreign influence over higher education more transparent.
Peer Review – Unfulfilled
When seeking review on Department of Education documents, the Secretary should seek “expert review” rather than “peer review.” “Peer review” has increasingly been compromised by higher education’s drift into ideological conformity and groupthink. Congress should advise the Secretary to seek reviewers who are genuinely independent minded.
The Aim Higher Act is silent about the need to reform peer review.
Speaker Fees – Unfulfilled
In light of the widespread use of speaker fees and honoraria by universities to transfer large sums of money to politicians and activists in favored causes, all colleges and universities that are recipients of federal funding should be required to disclose such fees and emoluments in excess of $20,000.
The Aim Higher Act makes no such requirements.
Teacher Credentials – Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act fails to take this opportunity to thoroughly review the radical decline in the quality of teachers’ colleges. The bill summary notes that although its rival bill, the PROSPER Act, “eliminates all Federal programs related to teacher and school leader development at institutes of higher education, the Aim Higher Act would retain and improve Title II of the HEA.”
Reducing Administrative Bloat – Unfulfilled
Congress should require colleges to reduce the proportion of college administrators to faculty members (proportion to be determined) as a condition of receiving federal Title IV funds.
The Aim Higher Act, far from reducing administrative costs, actually funds the expansion of campus bureaucracies by requiring colleges to designate a Title VI coordinator to track violations of civil rights; asking colleges to create an Office of Accessibility devoted to disabled students; encouraging colleges to create Veteran Student Centers; and offering funding for dedicated college staff to focus on homeless and foster students.
Charter of Academic Rights – Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act should require colleges to sign a charter of academic rights drafted by a Presidential Commission.
Illegal Immigration – Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act permits illegal aliens to receive federal student aid, so long as they are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA). Illegal aliens are not citizens or legal residents of the United States and should not be eligible for federal aid.
In our Freedom to Learn proposal, we suggested that colleges should be required to verify that they are not “sanctuary campuses.” Colleges must provide full information about the legal status (citizen, legal immigrant, or other) of all students, faculty, and other employees. Colleges must also agree to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Due Process and Title IX - Unfulfilled
The Aim Higher Act requires a standardized online survey tool to track “student experiences with domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.”
It does nothing to address our proposal to define “sex” as biological; to specify a Congressional legal office to review all Department of Education “Dear Colleague” letters and assess whether they substantially reinterpret or add to Title IX’s statutory meaning; to require colleges to set up judicial procedures for students and faculty with robust due process, the presumption of innocence, the right to counsel, the right to know what one is charged with, the right to face one’s accuser, and the right at all times to speak publicly about any case. It also neglects to establish federal licensing requirements for Title IX administrators that ensure they are fully informed about students’ due process rights.
Local Law Enforcement and Reported Crimes — Unfulfilled
We proposed that colleges and universities should be required to refer all reported felonies immediately to the local police. The Aim Higher Act does not.
Sustainability – Fulfilled
In keeping with our proposal, the Aim Higher Act permits the Sustainability Planning Grant authorization to expire.
The Aim Higher Act addresses a host of other issues that do not fit under the categories we set forth in the Freedom to Learn Amendments. The changes proposed by this bill tend toward increasing federal overreach, dramatically increasing federal funding, and fixating on race, ethnicity, and identity. Below we review some of these changes the Aim Higher Act puts forward.
The Aim Higher Act reinforces the status quo race-conscious policy on higher education. It requires the Secretary of Education to appoint a Special Assistant for Equity and Inclusion “who will promote, coordinate and evaluate equity and inclusion programs including the dissemination of information, technical assistance, and coordination of research activities.”
The Act also requires colleges and universities to designate a single employee to coordinate efforts to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, inform students of Title VI violations, disclose reporting procedures, and collect and publish data on Title VI violations.
The Act channels more funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions. It also requires disaggregation of postsecondary data by race as measured by the American Community Survey.
The Aim Higher Act is a wish list for special interests. It includes
- Federal funding for Native American students to attend any public university tuition-free.
- Federal grants to cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for students from US territories who wish to study in the US states.
- Grants for colleges to create Veteran Student Centers, and funding for a national website to assist institutions to serving veteran students.
- Renewing current grant programs for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and authorizing a new funding stream to support “innovation” at HBCUs and other Minority-Serving Institutions.
- Funding to help disabled students by creating an Office of Accessibility in every institution of higher education, training faculty in teaching students with disabilities, and expanding “opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities.”
- Dramatic increases in annual funding for on-campus childcare, from $16 million to $67 million.
- $150 million a year for housing, financial aid, “wrap around services,” and other programs for students who have been homeless or in the foster care system.
- Access to Federal student aid for illegal aliens.
- Repealing the ban on providing Pell grants to prisoners.
The Aim Higher Act threatens students’ privacy by eliminating the “student unit record” ban—which had forbidden the Secretary of Education to collect data on a student-by-student level. Instead, the bill would collect data on individual students and require the Department to develop a system to evaluate that data.
The bill also funnels additional $60 million annually into Title VI programs. These programs are supposed to teach foreign language and culture for the benefit of US national security, but increasingly they trumpet an anti-America agenda. The Aim Higher Act also codifies an Obama administration grant process that prioritizes Title VI grants to “Minority-Serving Institutions” (MSI) or other institutions that propose significant collaboration with an MSI.
Potentially Good Changes
There are a handful of ways in which the Aim Higher Act would improve higher education.
It states that colleges that fail to spend a majority of their federal tuition dollars on instruction will be prohibited from spending any taxpayer money on lobbying, marketing, and recruitment. This motivates institutions to put their focus where it belongs: on education.
It also expresses skepticism for competency-based education, the practice of quantifying and allotting college credit on the basis of experience and skills. The bill sponsors criticize the PROSPER Act for allowing “any program using a CBE model to access Federal financial aid with no additional quality checks other than an accreditor review…instead of unregulated access, the Aim Higher Act establishes a demonstration project that allows participating CBE programs to request flexibility from some current statutory and regulatory requirements seen as barriers to implementation.” Competency-based education may have some legitimate role in higher education, but it is wise to proceed with caution.
The Aim Higher Act ramps up federal spending on higher education, particularly on special interests, without offering any reforms of higher education’s structural problems. It makes no effort to improve freedom of speech or religious freedom on campus, worsens rather than reforms the complex and faulty system of Title IV student aid, and fails to promote competition among institutions.
It entrenches the idea that college is an entitlement that all students deserve, and it fails to protect students from the weight of student debt.
With the exception of requiring greater transparency surrounding foreign gifts to higher education and permitting Sustainability Planning Grants to expire, the Aim Higher Act includes none of NAS’s proposed changes to the Higher Education.
We believe the Aim Higher Act sets low expectations for higher education, and therefore we cannot support this bill.