House Republican lawmakers marked up education legislation Tuesday that would reauthorize and rewrite the Higher Education Act, shifting its priorities away from higher education and instead toward apprenticeship programs and vocational training.
Democrats opposed the bill, arguing that the changes favor for-profit colleges and would make it harder for students to afford a four-year college degree.
The approved the legislation around midnight by a 23-17 party-line vote.
Republicans argued that the changes were long-overdue reforms to an educational system that doesn't adequately serve the needs of students, employers or the economy. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said the current system was largely responsible for existing unemployment.
"Today, there are six million unfilled jobs in this country. Those jobs are unfilled because many employers have found that applicants lack the needed skills for those jobs. Today, Americans carry more than a trillion dollars in student debt. Somehow, despite the six types of federal student loans, nine repayment plans, eight forgiveness programs, and 32 deferment and forbearance options out there, college costs continue to surge, leaving millions of families paying the price for well-intentioned but poorly executed federal involvement. That is why this bill is before us today," Foxx said during a markup Tuesday.
The legislation was marked up along party lines following a marathon day-long hearing during which Democrats offered amendment after amendment to the legislation.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., ranking Democrat on the committee, slammed the reforms. "We cannot be complicit in efforts to help corporate interests first and students last. While not everyone must pursue a four-year degree, everyone must have the opportunity to do so," Scott said.
Dubbed the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity the Education Reform Act, the legislation would simplify student aid programs such as the Pell Grant program and cap the amount that students may borrow. Republican critics have argued that the generosity of the existing programs has allowed colleges to charge higher prices, contributing to the spiraling costs of higher education.
The PROSPER Act would end a program that forgives loans for public servants who have made payments on their loans for 10 years. It would allow Pell grants to be used short-term for worker training and apprenticeship programs. Regulations that require for-profit colleges to ensure gainful employment by students would be rolled back.
The legislation would codify recent changes by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to rules on reporting sexual assaults on campuses. DeVos rolled back Obama administration policies setting a lower standard of proof for resolving cases. It directs DeVos to create a "consumer-tested" website presenting data on college cost, financial aid and completion rates.
College "free-speech zones" — policies that allow the school to limit activism to certain areas — would be prohibited under the legislation. Republican critics have long said that the policies are selectively used to squelch conservative groups. The act would deny federal funds to public institutions that do not recognize campus religious groups.
The changes were opposed by the four-year college industry, which stands to lose out under the legislation. The American Association of Universities called it "seriously flawed."
Foxx brushed aside the criticism. "It is not the government's responsibility of the government to fund community colleges," she said.