Students to Keep Pressing Congress for Higher Education Update

  • Coalition of groups hope to increase student influence
  • Likelihood of bill falters as other legislation takes priority

Ten student advocacy groups are teaming up to push for a reauthorization of the main federal higher education law, even as lawmakers are turning their focus to other bills.

The groups have individually advocated for various groups of students, including veterans, low-income students, parents and adults returning to school. By forming a coalition, the groups hope to add power to their message to lawmakers, said Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director with the National Skills Coalition.

“Part of the goal is to create some urgency around making some changes to federal policy that can help those students be more successful in today’s economy,” he said. “There are things that need to happen sooner rather than later.”

Photographer: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
A coalition of student advocacy groups are hoping to prod the U.S. Congress toward reauthorizing a key federal higher education law.

Getting a higher education bill done by the end of the year – as Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander said he wanted to do earlier this year—faces a number of obstacles, both on negotiating the language and finding the time to pass a bill. Neither Alexander (R-Tenn.) nor Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over higher education, have unveiled even a reauthorization draft bill so far in the 116th Congress.

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The coalition includes Higher Learning Advocates, Jobs for the Future, National Campus Leadership Council, National College Access Network, National Skills Coalition, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, Student Veterans of America, University Professional and Continuing Education Association, Veterans Education Success and Young Invincibles.

Student Priority List

The coalition is focusing on a wide range of policies. Among the goals are getting more federal support to help college students pay for child care, housing and other non-academic expenses. The groups want to expand the Pell Grant to serve low-income students in short, career-oriented programs and simplify the student loan process so more students understand their obligations and how to repay their loans.

The coalition is also pushing for college access for students who were brought to the country as children by their undocumented parents, mental health support and protections for veterans who have been targeted by for-profit schools focused on maximizing profit.

Alexander suggested earlier this year that he would take up smaller, bipartisan bills if lawmakers can’t agree on comprehensive legislation. Yet more narrowly targeted bills could see little Democratic support. Scott and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member on the HELP committee, said they will support higher education bills only if they address college affordability, accountability, access and campus sexual assault.

‘A Marathon’

The National Skills Coalition’s Kaleba said a comprehensive bill would be preferred, but he wouldn’t walk away from conversations on smaller bills.

“Where we have some areas of strong bipartisan agreement, it would be worth considering whether or not those pieces of legislation can move on their own,” said Kaleba, speaking for his organization rather than the larger group.

Julie Peller, the executive director Higher Learning Advocates, said whether or not a higher ed bill is done this year, senators are discussing the issue and student perspectives need to be a part of that conversation.

“I like to look at reauthorizations like they’re a marathon,” Peller said. “So whether that marathon finishes in September or next year, the coalition coming together is intended to make sure the voice and diversity of today’s students is a central part of that conversation, no matter where it is in the process.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com