Amidst renewed efforts in the nation’s capital to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, University President Lawrence S. Bacow detailed his priorities for any future legislation in an interview last month.
The Higher Education Act, originally passed in 1965, authorizes the federal student financial aid program and includes provisions for funding sources like Pell Grants, the Federal Work Study Program, and loan repayment plans for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.
Bacow has visited Washington, D.C. five times since the beginning of his presidency in July, lobbying for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act alongside issues like immigration protections and federal research funding.
Bacow said in a March interview that he has engaged in conversations about the Higher Education Act with members of Congress, in particular with Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
“We have a friend in Senator Alexander in sort of trying to lead the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act,” Bacow said. “When I say us, I'm talking about all of higher education.”
Alexander, who formerly served as Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, has advocated for simplifying federal aid policies by shortening the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, reforming student loan repayment, and creating an accountability system to ensure students are repaying their loans on time.
The HELP committee has held hearings on reauthorization twice since the start of the year. As part of its discussions, the committee heard testimonies from experts in higher education about campus sexual assault and simplifying FAFSA.
Senator Patty Murray (D-Wa.) has led Democrats on the issue as the ranking member of the HELP committee, pushing for making federal student aid more accessible as well as allocating more aid toward higher education. Murray has also been outspoken about using the Higher Education Act as an opportunity to fortify sexual harassment prevention measures on campuses.
The Trump administration laid out its own proposals for reauthorization last week, including changes to Pell Grants, the reform of Federal Work Study, limits on Grad PLUS loans, and the simplification of student aid.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement that the White House proposals are “an important step” in the reauthorization process of the Higher Education Act.
“The University is monitoring this process closely and engaging with members in both the House and Senate as they develop their bills and move forward proposals,” Swain wrote.
Swain also wrote that the University is focusing its lobbying on bolstering federal programs that provide financial assistance to low-income students, specifically citing protection and expansion of the Pell Grant as priorities.
At the College, which touts its no-loan financial aid policy, students are less likely to be affected by changes to federal loan policies than at graduate and professional schools. Swain noted that the University’s advocacy for the Higher Education Act includes graduate and professional students — an area which he deemed to have recently experienced “an erosion of federal support.”
“The Trump Administration proposals continue this trend with new limits on loans, which are the primary source of federal aid available to these students, and by rolling back important loan forgiveness programs that help keep borrowing affordable and encourage public service work,” Swain wrote.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
During the 2017-2018 school year, Harvard had 1,254 Pell Grant recipients who received awards totaling $5,601,702 and 1,120 students on Federal Work Study, collectively receiving $2,397,897. The University also had 1,693 students who received Grad PLUS loans, totalling $60,800,828, and 126 students who benefitted from PLUS (Parent) loans, amounting to $3,645,573.
The most recent movement to reauthorize the Higher Education Act came in 2017 when House Republicans proposed an overhaul of the bill. The legislation — dubbed the PROSPER Act — would have reauthorized Pell grants, restructured loan repayment plans, and eliminated Federal Work Study and public service loan forgiveness for graduate and professional students.
Former University President Drew G. Faust criticized the PROSPER Act for its potential to reduce student aid and support for work study. Harvard’s Federal Relations Office lobbied against the bill to representatives in Congress, where the act eventually stalled after passing a House committee 23-17 in Dec. 2017. It did not move to the full House or Senate for a vote before the new Congress took office in January.
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