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Letter to Congress on Higher Education Act

August 28, 2014

Dear Senator Harkin:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, we thank you for sharing your discussion draft to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. We appreciate that this critical legislation is being addressed in its entirety and that your bill builds on the core goal of the original law: increasing access to higher education.

Specifically, we applaud your focus on making higher education more affordable, improving teacher preparation, encouraging investment and innovation, controlling abuses in the for-profit sector, enhancing diversity, and the recognition that educators are stakeholders in the higher education enterprise. These aspects of the bill are discussed below, along with additional steps that could be taken to make higher education more affordable and accessible, especially for under-represented racial and ethnic minorities.

Making higher education more affordable

The student debt burden stands at $1.2 trillion and exceeds total credit card debt. Two out of three students must borrow money to attend college. Many graduates are burdened with crushing debt that is also hurting America’s economy—they cannot afford to buy homes or cars, start businesses, support families, invest, or contribute to economic growth in other ways.

To address these pressing issues, NEA recently launched a nationwide campaign, "Degrees Not Debt," to make higher education more affordable and reduce student debt. Not only does your bill share these goals, it provides a roadmap to realizing them. We commend you for:

  • Helping students get their degrees faster by reinstating year-round Pell Grants.
  • Providing for refinancing of federal student loans when interest rates decline instead of balancing the budget on the backs of our students.
  • Enabling more students to earn college credit while they are still in high school by expanding access to dual enrollment and early college programs.
  • Supporting innovative approaches such as grants for persistence and program completion.
  • Streamlining repayment plans to create a single income-based repayment option with affordable monthly payments for struggling borrowers.
  • Permitting private student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy.
  • Automatically enrolling severely delinquent borrowers in income-based repayment plans to help them avoid bankruptcy.

In addition, we encourage you to restore federally subsidized loans for graduate students and to require the costs of higher education—including ways to reduce them—to be disclosed in meaningful ways that equip students and families to make informed decisions and cost comparisons. For example, letters advising students of financial aid determinations could be standardized; lenders could be required to spell

out borrowing costs and repayment schedules in easy-to-understand language; and students could be encouraged to pursue careers in education or other forms of public service by publicizing and enhancing loan forgiveness programs governed by the Higher Education Act.

Improving teacher preparation

We appreciate your thoughtful revision of Title II to reflect current "best practices" and fine-tune reporting requirements to help improve teacher preparation programs. In particular, we applaud the focus on residencies in teacher quality partnership grants. NEA believes residencies are the best way to ensure that teacher candidates are "profession-ready," defined as:

  • Extensive opportunities to develop and learn teaching and basic classroom management skills.
  • Demonstrating the ability to plan and deliver instruction to students with different learning styles, and also to assess and support student learning.
  • Working with accomplished educators to understand the value of collaboration and reflection.
  • Learning firsthand the importance of the connection between home and school.

All teachers should be profession-ready from the first day they enter their classrooms as teachers-of-record. To help ensure that they are, preparation programs should include comprehensive residency programs that go beyond traditional student teaching. Specifically, teacher candidates should engage in a series of school-based experiences and teaching opportunities under the guidance of an accomplished teacher while simultaneously applying theories learned from coursework. For details, please see Teacher Residencies: Redefining Preparation Through Partnerships.

Teacher candidates should also be required to demonstrate that they have the skills and knowledge necessary for effective classroom practice before becoming teachers-of-record—for example, by completing a classroom-based performance assessment like edTPA. Developed by the profession for the profession (in collaboration with Stanford University), edTPA requires candidates to demonstrate mastery of subject matter and pedagogy in their field, as well as the ability to improve student learning. For details, please see Profession-Ready Teachers and Prepare Tomorrow’s Teachers with edTPA.

Encouraging investment and innovation

The rising student debt burden is the result of systemic disinvestment in higher education systems at the state level over the last three decades—a problem exacerbated by the recent recession from which our nation has still not fully recovered. On average, states are spending $2,026 or 23 percent less per student than before the recession. (Source: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities)

As per capita state appropriations have declined, the price of higher education has risen sharply for students and their families—far more than either the median income or the rate of inflation. Over the 12-year period 2000-2012 alone, the average net price at four-year public colleges and institutions exceeded inflation by nearly 24 percent. (Source: Congressional Budget Office)

We are pleased to see that your bill would begin to correct these deeply troubling trends—in the public sector, by creating a federal-state partnership to address the affordability of higher education and in the private sector, by supporting community college and industry partnerships to promote innovation in higher education.

The draft bill also includes demonstration competency-based and online education programs. As noted above, we support innovative approaches such as grants for persistence and program completion. At the same time, we caution that digital learning tools must be subject to the same academic scrutiny as traditional curriculums and that decisions about them must be made by educators for educational reasons, not imposed by outside entities. It is of critical importance that the use of technology is recognized as a tool that assists and enhances the learning process—and is not itself the driver of learning.

Controlling abuses in the for-profit sector

We salute the steps your bill takes to control abuses in the for-profit sector, especially since they would enhance the overall affordability and quality of higher education as well. Specifically, we support:

  • Establishing a risk-sharing commission to explore holding low-performing institutions financially responsible for poor student outcomes.
  • Changing the 90-10 rule for for-profit schools to 85-15 to protect the investment of taxpayer dollars.
  • Guaranteeing that federal education dollars are not used on advertising and marketing.
  • Creating a student complaint system to improve tracking of harmful practices and help students get relief.

In addition, we urge you to consider modifying the draft bill to include the following provisions, which we have also urged the U.S. Department of Education to include in its proposed gainful employment rule:

  • Providing financial relief for students in programs that lose their eligibility for federal aid.
  • Limiting enrollment in poorly performing programs until they improve.
  • Protecting low-cost programs where most graduates don’t borrow.

Enhancing diversity

The diversity of America’s college students has been increasing. From 1976 to 2011, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 percent to 14 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 15 percent, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students rose from 0.7 to 0.9 percent. (Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics)

We commend the inclusion of institutional aid for a range of minority-serving institutions in Title III and believe it will help continue the progress already made. Minority-serving institutions enhance the diversity of both our nation’s student population and educational offerings.

As an additional step toward supporting these institutions, we urge you to include a provision that parallels the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed rule on Direct PLUS Loans for parents. The proposed rule would loosen the credit history requirements that determine eligibility, expand access to an estimated 371,000 borrowers, and increase the number of minority students with access to affordable higher education.

Recognition that educators are stakeholders

Finally, we salute your recognition that educators are stakeholders in the development of education policies at the campus level. Under traditional principles of shared governance in higher education—principles that NEA advocates—higher education faculty and staff participate in the governance of their institutions. We believe that faculty should have primary responsibility for determining curricula, methods of instruction, and subject matter; establishing requirements for earning degrees and certificates; reviewing institutional budgets; and making recommendations on financial issues that impact academic programs.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments. We look forward to working with you to bring reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to fruition.

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director, Government