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UPDATED: May 3, 2018 at 2:40 p.m.
President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow will be “very much focused” on the pending reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act, University President Drew G. Faust said in an interview Tuesday, though she said the bill's future is uncertain.
The Higher Education Act, originally enacted in 1965, authorizes the federal student financial aid program and includes provisions that fund and structure programs like Pell Grants, the Federal Work-Study Program, and loan repayment plans for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.
Republican House lawmakers’ proposed overhaul, called the PROSPER Act, would restructure loan repayment plans and eliminate Federal Work-Study and public service loan forgiveness for graduate and professional students, among other changes. The legislation passed a House committee 23–17 in Dec. 2017, but has yet to move to the full House or Senate for a vote.
Faust has said she is concerned by the PROSPER Act in its current form, specifically regarding the threat it poses to student financial aid and to the Federal Work Study program. She has met with several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to discuss these provisions.
At the moment, Harvard’s priorities are not under immediate threat; the bill is stalled in the House and the outcome of the Nov. 2018 midterm elections will likely have significant bearing on whether the PROSPER Act progresses.
“It’s hard, though, to know how far that bill is going to go, if anywhere, and what might happen if it got into the Senate,” Faust said. “I think it would be a quite different bill.”
Still, Faust said it will be imperative to “keep a close eye” on the legislation. She referenced the fact that the same lawmakers who personally promised her they would not support an endowment tax proceeded to vote for the legislation in Dec. 2017.
“We were so reassured by everybody’s statements that there would never be an endowment tax, that I don’t want to take anything for granted,” Faust said.
Faust said she thinks Bacow—who will take office in July 2018—will keep a watchful eye on the PROSPER Act. More generally, she said she thinks her successor will be a powerful and needed advocate for higher education in Washington in coming months.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education—a major lobbying group for American colleges and universities—said he doubts the Higher Education Act will be reauthorized within the year.
Hartle said the PROSPER Act was pushed through the House committee on an entirely partisan basis at a time when Republicans had decisively seized the helm.
“The challenge in reauthorizing the higher education act is that this is a large, complicated piece of legislation that sooner or later requires bipartisanship and they don’t have much bipartisanship on Capitol Hill at present,” Hartle said.
The Senate has begun deliberations over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act through a committee chaired by Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee. Alexander said in February he hoped to produce a Senate version of the current reauthorization legislation “by early spring.”
Alexander has said he wants to pass the bill in a bipartisan manner—an approach that would set him apart from some other House Republicans.
Democratic Senator Patty Murray, who is also on the committee, has warned of streamlining loans and grants without preserving the total amount of aid. Hartle noted, though, that “early spring” has passed and the Senate committee has yet to release any updates.
“We are at the end of April,” Hartle said. “Nothing has yet emerged from those deliberations and as every day goes by the chances of a bipartisan bill coming forward diminish further.”
The PROSPER Act also contains a provision that could imperil Harvard's ability to enforce its social group penalties; pending some alterations, the legislation would force the University to choose between the sanctions and millions of dollars of federal research funding. A group of final club alumni have recently stepped up efforts to advocate for this provision in Washington.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: May 3, 2018
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly indicated President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow will take office in June 2018. In fact, he will begin his term in July 2018.
—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @krisguillaume.
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