3 changes Sen. Lamar Alexander plans for the HEA in 2019

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3 changes Sen. Lamar Alexander plans for the HEA in 2019

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), has spoken for years about reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). But his recent announcement that he plans to retire in 2020 suggests the reauthorization of the HEA will be a top priority for Alexander this year.

In a recent panel discussion at conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, Alexander discussed three priorities for the proposed bill:

1: Simplify the FAFSA. Reducing the number of questions on the FAFSA has been a long-term goal of Alexander’s. In the discussion, he laid out two paths for simplifying the student aid application process: paring down the number of questions students must answer from 108 to 25 or fewer, or allowing students to bypass the questions entirely by importing information already held by the IRS.

2: Automatically enroll students in one of two repayment plans. Alexander has long been a proponent of streamlining payment plan options. And with the reauthorization of the HEA, he hopes to enroll students in a loan repayment plan that either deducts 10% of their income for 20 years, after which the remaining balance will be forgiven, or a fixed payment over 10 years. Both plans would deduct payments directly from graduates’ paychecks.

“Students will have a manageable payment, most will completely pay off their loans…and it should end the nightmare that many students have worrying how they’re going to pay off their student loans,” Alexander said of the proposal.

3: Implement a program-level school accountability program. Alexander hopes to implement a new accountability system for colleges based on the rate of graduates’ loan repayments in each program a college offers. “It would apply to every program and it would apply to every college, public, private, and nonprofit, and the measure would be much simpler,” said Alexander.

“This should lower tuition for some programs, or even discourage schools from offering programs that are not worth it to students,” he added.

Learn more: This new app may (finally) make completing the FAFSA easier

Alexander’s upcoming retirement may give urgency to the HEA reauthorization, but passing any legislation will require a level of bipartisanship that’s been absent from previous HEA reauthorization talks. Although both Democrats and Republicans want to simplify the student aid application process, for example, the two parties have disagreed over how to restructure repayment options and accountability rules for colleges.

And because Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives—and have an outline of their own bill, the Aim Higher Act—bipartisan cooperation will be essential for Alexander to see his plans come to fruition.

But this level of bipartisan cooperation could be possible in 2019, policy experts suggest. “Senator Alexander showed he is serious by laying out concrete ideas while moving away from the most divisive ideas proposed by conservatives last year,” says James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success.

And Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), the ranking Democrat on HELP, seems to be on board with working with Alexander to reauthorize the HEA. “This is a moment for us to step up and do the hard work of negotiating a comprehensive reauthorization that truly works for students, families, and borrowers, and I hope we can remain committed to tackling the tough issues to get that done,” said Murray said in a news release.

Tamara Hiler, deputy director of education at the think tank Third Way, points out that “[Alexander] has already demonstrated the ability to work well with Senator Murray in a bipartisan fashion, and without having to worry about the prospects of managing a political campaign and re-election, he will be even more focused to work across the aisle to get this legislation through” (Kelderman, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/4; Kreighbaum, Inside Higher Ed, 12/18; Phenicie, The 74, 2/4).

Related: Why federal financial aid isn’t enough for college students

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