The start of the 116th Congress in January 2019 is the first one in which the House and Senate are controlled by different parties since the 113th Congress (2013-2015). A long overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act may be one piece of major legislation that could be addressed this year. If so, the following kinds of changes might be considered in the context of making some needed improvements: simplifying the federal student aid application, creating a new income-based repayment plan for borrowers, building a new accountability system for colleges based on whether borrowers actually are repaying their loans, expanding competency-based education programs, requiring colleges to use clearer language in letters telling students about the aid they're receiving, and collecting better data on how much students borrow and how much they earn after graduation. Other possibilities include allowing incarcerated individuals to access Pell Grants and making grants available for shorter academic programs.

More than 104,000 responses recently were generated to comment on proposed Title IX rules by the U.S. Department of Education regarding how schools handle sexual assault allegations. Acknowledging that some would-be respondents may have experienced technical issues involving the website that could have preventing the submission of comments, the site was reopened for the single day of February 15, 2019. Examples of what the controversy entails also are described below:

Reducing Student College Debt

During the last four years, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor & Pensions (HELP) has held 27 hearings on the Higher Education Act. A concern expressed at many of these sessions is the problem of the significant burden of student debt. Approximately 43 million individuals, one in six adult Americans, have federal student loan debt and the federal student loan portfolio currently is approaching $1.5 trillion. A key aspect of the situation is applying for financial aid, a process that may be a suitable candidate for implementing some beneficial modifications.

One possible remedy is reducing the 108 questions to a much smaller number (e.g., 15-25) in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that 20 million families must fill out each year if they want a federal grant or loan to help pay for college. Not only does providing answers involve a significant amount of effort, a related issue is that some applicants may be intimidated by the complexity of the required information, making them wary of giving the Education Department data they already have provided to the IRS. Another impediment is that a verification process can suspend Pell Grant payments while a family has to resubmit tax information and wait for the government to check to ensure that the information is correct. To the extent that some students may be unable to attend college because of an inability to obtain financial aid, a solution involving the FAFSA is warranted.

Title IX Proposed Rule Involving Sexual Assault Allegations

Academic institutions are not equivalent to courts of law, yet they are responsible under Title IX to respond to allegations of sexual harassment, including sexual assault. Cases of this nature can be quite difficult to resolve because of differing accounts of what transpired and time lapses between when an event occurred and when it is reported. The challenge in such instances is to adopt processes to ensure that the parties involved are treated fairly and equitably. Depending on one’s perspective, the proposed rule consists of provisions that may be considered:

Helpful (e.g., requires institutions to provide both parties with reasonable time to prepare for any interview or disciplinary hearing).

Not Helpful (e.g., a requirement for a live hearing with cross-examination, which in effect is viewed as the same as legalistic, court-like processes that should not be the responsibility of educational institutions).

Lack Of Clarity (e.g., the term “due process” basically adds to an existing level of confusion).

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