Coverage of legislation and regulatory activity that affects higher education
By Liz Clark
A Summer Schedule of New Legislation, Updated Guidelines, Reauthorization Activity
Recent legislation and agency guidelines relate to everything from new in-state tuition mandates for service members and veterans to continuing steps toward reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
New In-State Tuition Mandates for Military
Just before adjourning for its August recess, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (H.R. 3230), which reforms the way that the Department of Veterans Affairs provides health care to veterans. The act also includes a provision requiring public institutions, as a condition of participation in VA education benefits programs, to charge veterans and their dependents in-state tuition and fees regardless of their current state of residence. The following conditions must be met:
- The veteran was discharged no more than three years prior to enrollment, after a period of service of at least 90 days.
- The veteran is using VA education benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill (Chapter 30) or the Post 9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33); or the dependent is using Chapter 33 benefits.
- The veteran resides in the state in which the institution is located while attending.
As long as the individual begins attendance within the three-year window, he or she must continue to be charged in-state tuition rates as long as enrollment is continuous.
DOMA Impact on In-State Tuition
The Department of Education (ED) recently issued additional guidance on the Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as it pertains to the eligibility of spouses of certain members of the armed forces. Under Section 135 of the Higher Education Act, members of the Armed Services on active duty, and their spouses and dependents, may not be charged more than the in-state rate for tuition and fees, if their domicile or duty station is in the state.
A July 24 "Dear Colleague" letter (GEN-14-15) from ED adds to earlier guidance on the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated Section 3 of DOMA. As in GEN-13-25 and GEN-14-14, spousal benefits must be extended if the parties were married in a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage, regardless of whether it is recognized in the state where the couple resides or attends school.
Workforce Legislation Signed Into Law
An 11-year effort to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) finally came to fruition on July 22, when President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The bill provides for continued community college representation on local workforce development boards, improved performance accountability metrics, and an increased focus on the transition to postsecondary education for adult basic education students.
The goal of the Workforce Investment Act, which came to fruition on July 22, is to ensure effective worker education and workforce development opportunities.
The overall goal of the legislation is to ensure effective worker education and workforce development opportunities. The American Association of Community Colleges, however, raised concerns in May that there is no authorization for a dedicated community college program, such as the Community-Based Job Training Grants, and that representation of community colleges on state workforce development boards in most states is optional, not mandatory.
PLUS Loans Proposals
On August 8, ED published in the Federal Register a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), to revise its rules on credit determinations for all PLUS loans made to graduate student and parent borrowers. Over the past few years, ED's stricter enforcement of its creditworthiness rules for PLUS loan borrowers—coupled with the lingering effects of the economic downturn—sharply drove up loan disapprovals. The impact was particularly hard on some small institutions serving underrepresented populations, including a number of historically black colleges and universities.
The Higher Education Act states that to be eligible to receive a PLUS loan, an applicant must not have an adverse credit history. ED conducts credit checks on all loan applicants to make sure they meet this requirement. The proposed rulemaking tempers current practice by proposing that a PLUS applicant would have an adverse credit history "if the applicant has one or more debts  with a total combined outstanding balance greater than $2,085 that are 90 or more days delinquent as of the date of the credit report, or  that have been placed in collection or charged off during the two years preceding the date of the credit report."
The $2,085 threshold can be adjusted over time by ED, likely by tying it to the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U). Any future adjustment that ED would make to the $2,085 threshold would be announced in the Federal Register.
Under current regulations, a parent who has an adverse credit history can be eligible for a PLUS loan, if he or she submits documentation to ED explaining that extenuating circumstances exist. That documentation may include, but is not limited to, an updated credit report for the parent or "a statement from the creditor that the parent has repaid or made satisfactory arrangements to repay a debt that was considered in determining that the parent has an adverse credit history."
Under the NPRM, in addition to providing such documentation, a parent or student with an adverse credit history would be required to complete PLUS loan counseling offered by ED in order to become eligible for a PLUS loan.
By law, the department is required to publish final rules in the Federal Register no later than November 1 in order for them take effect the following July.
Higher Education Act Reauthorization
On July 23, the House of Representatives approved two bipartisan legislative proposals intended to "spur innovation and strengthen transparency in higher education." The bills represent the House's first steps toward reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). House Republicans also released a white paper in June outlining their priorities for HEA.
Reps. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), Susan Brooks (R-IN), and Jared Polis (D-CO) cosponsored the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act (H.R. 3136) that seeks to promote innovation in higher education by directing the secretary of education to implement competency-based education demonstration projects.
Authored by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and cosponsored by Reps. Luke Messer (R-IN) and John Kline (R-MN), the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (H.R. 4983) would require the secretary of education to create a consumer-tested College Dashboard, in an effort to streamline and eliminate unnecessary information.
In June, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who will be retiring at the end of this term, unveiled a 785-page discussion draft to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) also recently released a proposal for the HEA bill to simplify the process of applying for and receiving financial aid to attend college.
Both plans support the goals of making college more affordable, providing students with better information about college costs and student aid, and increasing institutional accountability for student access and success.
Bipartisan Campus Sexual Assault Bill
On July 30, a bipartisan group of eight senators—led by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)—introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The new bill would require colleges and universities to take preventive measures to protect students from sexual assaults, increase institutional accountability, and require establishment of new campus resources for assault victims.
The Department of Education has yet to finalize its proposed rules implementing changes to the Violence Against Women Act, which requires colleges and universities to revise annual security reports, gather statistics for new crime categories, and maintain ongoing prevention and awareness campaigns for students and employees. McCaskill's bill goes much further by imposing stricter penalties on institutions for Clery Act violations and creating new transparency requirements through annual student surveys.
The Campus Accountability and Safety Act would require institutions to:
- Establish campus resources and support services for student survivors of sexual assault. Smaller institutions would be allowed to form partnerships to provide these services.
- Provide specialized training for campus personnel responsible for sexual assault investigations and disciplinary proceedings.
- Ensure that an "adequate, random, and representative sample size of students" completes an annual, anonymous survey, developed by ED in consultation with the Department of Justice, regarding their experiences with sexual violence and harassment.
- Establish a uniform campuswide process for disciplinary proceedings and no longer use athletic departments or other alternative processes to handle sexual violence complaints involving certain types of students.
Institutions that do not comply with certain requirements under the bill may face a penalty of up to 1 percent of the institution's operating budget. Penalties for failure to comply with the Clery Act would also increase from $35,000 to $150,000 per violation.