Senate Democrats and House Republicans announced plans this week for legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which expired at the end of 2013. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, announced the forthcoming release of a comprehensive reauthorization bill, the first such legislation drafted since the Higher Education Opportunity Act was signed into law in 2008, while House Education and the Workforce committee chair Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) released a white paper outlining their priorities for an eventual reauthorization plan.

The announcements come shortly after the introduction of several other legislative proposals: Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Michael Bennet’s (D-Colo.) proposal to create a new “FAST Act,” aimed at simplifying the process of applying for federal financial aid; a plan from Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Angus King (I-Maine) to reform student loan repayment systems; and Sen. Bennet’s bill to establish a demonstration project for competency-based education.

The proliferation of new higher education policy proposals offers promise for progress, although there will likely be little movement prior to the midterm elections. Still, there’s some common ground across the aisle and in both chambers of Congress, so these bills might help create a foundation for future HEA or other legislation. That’s why we’ve pulled together our first takes on some of the key areas of reform that connect directly to New America’s policy research. Check it out here, and check back with EdCentral for more analysis in the weeks to come.

1. Consumer Information and Simplification: Most of the bills released over the last week and forthcoming legislation include a consumer information or simplification component. The FAST Act would make applying for federal financial aid a much easier, two-step process. The Senate bill calls on colleges to make better information available to students, and would provide financial aid eligibility information to middle- and high-school students. The House white paper suggests that the federal government should provide clearer, easier-to-understand information to students, as well.

Rachel Fishman: For information to affect any decision-making process, students and families need it well before they make their decision. Simplifying the federal financial aid application, disseminating institutional and financial aid information to prospective and accepted students, and making that information more comprehensible and standardized will go a long way in helping students and families figure out which college will be the best social, academic, and financial fit.

2. Accountability: The Senate bill and the House white paper are at odds on goals related to accountability. Sen. Harkin’s version includes a number of provisions to hold for-profit colleges, in particular, accountable, like making for-profit institutions derive at least 15 percent of their revenue from non-governmental sources instead of the current standard of 90 percent that improperly excludes veterans’ benefits. Beyond the for-profit sector, the Senate bill also takes steps to increase accountability for student loan servicers, includes the disclosure of new outcomes metrics like student loan repayment rates, and a commission to consider options for institutional risk-sharing. Meanwhile, though the House provides few details on accountability, it seems concerned mainly with limiting federal interventions through regulation and in encouraging accreditation agencies to play a stronger role.

Ben Miller: The Harkin bill places a lot of emphasis where oversight is most immediately needed. But the reality is that House and Senate lawmakers hold divergent perspectives on the role of the federal government in accountability for postsecondary institutions, and they seem unlikely to find much room for agreement in these drafts.

3. Financial Aid: The House and Senate bills, as well as the proposed FAST Act, would all streamline the federal student aid system. The House and FAST Act versions would create a single grant, a single undergraduate loan, and fewer repayment plans than are currently available; and the Senate version would automatically create income-based payments for some struggling borrowers. Meanwhile, the Senate would restore the year-round Pell Grant, while the House also proposes making the Pell Grant program more flexible.

Mary Alice McCarthy: Proposals like the return of the year-round Pell Grant are just smart public policy, and it’s great to see the House and Senate show some agreement on these issues. Experience tells us that simplifying and reworking federal policies will likely help many of our most vulnerable students succeed in college — and that’s what the financial aid program is all about.

4. Education Preparation: The House and Senate draft texts both focus on reporting more meaningful  outcome data on the quality of teacher preparation programs, while removing many current reporting requirements. Otherwise, the  two versions overlap minimally.The Senate bill creates a new competitive grant program focused on driving improvements in educator preparation programs, and modifies Teacher Quality Partnership Grants to focus primarily on residency programs at high-need schools. While the House white paper provides few details,  it refers mostly to streamlining federal programs and moving Teacher Quality Partnership Grants to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Melissa Tooley: Both the House and Senate promoted reporting more useful information on educator preparation programs. However, the House took no steps toward driving improvements in educator preparation, while the Senate plan would merely tinker around the edges in this area. And without strong incentives to focus on improvement, program quality is likely to remain stagnant.

5. Competency-Based Demonstration Program: Sen. Harkin’s proposed bill also includes a demonstration project to allow colleges to utilize competency-based education (CBE), as does a bill introduced this week by Sen. Bennet. As outlined in New America’s Cracking the Credit Hour report, CBE focuses on learning, rather than seat time. But current laws and rules make it difficult for students to use federal financial aid for innovative, non-seat time approaches. The proposed bill would waive time-based financial aid requirements, in exchange for heightened attention paid to student learning and other outcomes, for a select group of institutions.

Amy Laitinen: You get what you pay for, and right now we’re paying for time, rather than learning. A demonstration project would create a safe space for responsible innovation. We need to figure out what works–and what doesn’t–to ensure that CBE programs are of the highest and knowable quality. If done well, this experiment could inform broader future changes to the Higher Education Act in which paying for learning, rather than time, is the norm.

Those are our first thoughts — but check back with EdCentral in the coming weeks for much more analysis of these proposals!

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Clare McCann

Clare McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Find her on Twitter: @claremccann