If Republicans take control of the House of Representatives after the upcoming midterm elections, the Biden administration could expect lawsuits challenging student loan forgiveness and stepped-up oversight of the U.S. Department of Education, higher education lobbyists and policy experts say.
“Their priorities are going to be much more about building a record with an eye toward 2024,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank.
Hess and others interviewed expected Republicans to focus heavily on President Biden’s recent decision to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans for eligible Americans, as well as changes to other debt-relief programs. Meanwhile, conversations about changes to Pell Grants, affordability and accountability will likely continue, but meaningful legislation in response is not expected to result from those discussions.
“Once the president went ahead and tried to do his student loan forgiveness scheme, that pretty much sunk the last possibility that you could have a constructive or trust-based relationship around higher ed legislation,” Hess said.
Election forecasters and models predict that the Republicans will win a majority in at least the House, though some think Democrats have a chance to retain control. Control of the Senate is a toss-up, with Democrats likely to keep the majority.
House and Senate Republicans have been vocal in their opposition to the debt-cancellation action as well as to the department’s overhaul of regulations regarding Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which were introduced over the summer and would change how colleges investigate reports of sexual assault and expand protections for LGBTQ+ students. The expansion of sex-based discrimination and harassment to include harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was a controversial change in the proposed regulations, and one that attracted thousands of comments in opposition. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has said the department will propose a separate set of regulations governing transgender students’ involvement in sports.
House Republicans’ campaign platform includes “ensuring that only women can compete in women’s sports.”
Lobbyists and experts expect to see investigations and potentially adversarial hearings featuring Cardona and other key decision-makers if the Republicans win a majority.
“We’ve seen this again and again and again on both sides,” said Jonathan Fansmith, assistant vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education. “If you’re in charge of Congress, when the other party controls the administration, you tend to spend a lot of time and energy digging into what they’re doing and publicizing what you don’t like about what they’re doing.”
Meanwhile, national conversations about education have become increasingly polarized, and more Americans are less likely to think colleges and universities have positive effect on the country, according to recent surveys. Republican candidates across the country have criticized the teaching of racism, gender identity and sexuality in the classroom and what they see as a decline of free speech on college campuses.
“These kind of culture issues will definitely be more in the forefront under a Republican education and labor committee or the Senate [Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions] Committee than under Democrats,” said Michelle Dimino, deputy director of education for Third Way, a center-left think tank.
Hess said the Republicans’ oversight role is what would likely have the most practical impact over the next two years.
“The policy agenda that they will talk about is—at least for the next year, even if the Republicans were to win the House—ultimately less significant than the oversight role that a Republican committee would play,” he said.
Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina and other Republican lawmakers on the House Committee on Education and Labor recently laid out part of their vision for higher education in the Responsible Education Assistance through Loan (REAL) Reforms Act, introduced in August. Among other changes, that bill would eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, cap how much borrowers would have to repay on their loans and curtail the education secretary’s authority to change debt-relief programs without congressional approval.
Foxx, who is expected to lead the Committee on Education and Labor, said at a recent American Enterprise Institute event that the REAL Reforms Act was a “common-sense proposal” to address problems in the federal student loan system. That act also serves as a starting point for fixing the nation’s “broken postsecondary system.”
“Reform to our postsecondary education system is more necessary now than it ever has been,” Foxx said at the AEI event. “We’re at a pivotal moment.”
Foxx is a longtime member of the House education committee, and lobbyists expect her to focus on workforce issues and college affordability should she become chair.
David Baime, senior vice president of government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said Foxx has previously supported establishing Pell Grants for short-term training programs, which is a priority for the association.
“We would expect a strong emphasis on workforce programs and the role of community colleges in meeting the needs of business,” Baime said.
Third Way’s Dimino said Republicans and Democrats have shown an interest in addressing graduate student loan interest rates and volume. About half of the country’s outstanding student loans are currently held by those who pursued a graduate degree.
“The pandemic and the shifting circumstances economically for many Americans have put higher education into the spotlight in a lot of new and important ways,” Dimino said. “Going forward, there’s really no conversation to be had about higher ed that doesn’t include a robust dialogue around what kind of accountability is needed to really address the student loan challenges and to ensure that we don’t end up in the same situation in a few years.”
Hess of AEI said the Title IX changes, particularly the reinterpretation of the law to protect gender identity, and free speech on college campuses would likely be a priority for Foxx.
But Hess and others don’t think a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 is likely, given the current climate on Capitol Hill. The act is supposed to be updated every five years and was last approved in 2008.
“Any Republican at this point who says, ‘Oh yes. We’re gonna build a relationship with the White House and work together on complex details,’ and then trust the Cardona Department of Education is going to implement provisions in a way that reflects a compromise, will be immediately regarded as out of touch with the practical reality of what’s going on in Washington right now,” Hess said.
Dimino said an HEA reauthorization would be “an uphill battle,” while Fansmith said it would be “almost impossible.”
Still, other policy priorities such as short-term Pell could move forward as a stand-alone bill or part of other legislation.
“You can’t let everything fall apart while you wait for everything to be done,” Fansmith said.