News: Federal Policy & Advocacy

Top Senate Education Committee Democrat Outlines HEA Reauthorization Vision

Monday, March 4, 2019  
Posted by: Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy
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Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee outlined her priorities for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) in a speech at the Center for American Progress. Sen. Murray advocated for a comprehensive HEA that promotes affordability, accountability, accessibility, and campus safety and civil rights.

This speech follows one from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the HELP committee chair, last month that focused on FAFSA simplification, loan repayment, accountability, and listed “other good ideas” he had discussed with committee colleagues. While Sen. Murray agreed that FAFSA simplification is necessary, she did not elaborate on a specific proposal regarding this top NCAN priority.


The senator opened her speech discussing affordability both for current and former students. For current students, she outlined the diminishing purchasing power of the Pell Grant and stressed that Pell recipients and students of color are more likely to take out loans to pay for their education. Sen. Murray also hinted at her position on free college:

“Everyone who wants to go to college – whether it’s a two- or four-year degree – should have the choice to do so, and shouldn’t be saddled with debt as a result.”

Sen. Murray did not call for free college anywhere in the speech, or even specifically debt-free college, though saying students shouldn’t be saddled with debt is close to the latter. Free college proposals would allow all students, or all students with family incomes below a set income cap, to attend college for free. (Some plans out there would cover the cost of tuition, while others would cover the full cost of attendance.). Debt-free college is a more progressive system, providing greater resources to low- and moderate-income families to prevent them from needing to take on debt, and assuming that higher income families would pay their own way. (Check out this explainer from Education Commission of the States.)

But in her speech, the senator didn’t propose a coordinated plan that would eliminate debt or provide free college for all. She instead called for a federal-state partnership to promote new investments in higher education by both the federal and state governments. Additionally, she said she would like to see increased investments in the Pell Grant program, federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), and the Federal Work-Study program.

Lastly, Sen. Murray said she wants to address the total cost of college, not just tuition. When discussing additional costs of pursuing higher education, she specifically mentioned food, textbooks, housing, transportation, and child care.


The senator listed accountability as her second priority. This topic is also one of her Republican counterpart’s priorities. Sen. Murray discussed the need for institutions of higher education to be held accountable for student outcomes, but did not outline a specific approach as to how she would measure accountability beyond stating that degrees and certificates should lead to jobs that allow borrowers to balance their student loans and the cost of living.

Sen. Murray did specifically focus on predatory colleges, citing examples of several failed schools in the sector. Further, she said U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ rollback of consumer protections in the for-profit college industry would allow these schools to “run rampant.”

Sen. Alexander has called for accountability at the program level for all types of institutions, not just for-profits, which would be based on a student loan repayment measure.


The senator’s third priority is accessibility; she called for supports to allow historically underrepresented students to have better access to higher education. NCAN’s focus on access is usually tied with being able to afford school (aka financial aid). However, the senator’s reform agenda focused more on providing communities with wraparound supports (which have costs in different ways).

She called for “enhancing federal investments and support systems” for these groups of students: students of color, first-generation college students, student parents, homeless and foster youth, women, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, working students, veterans, and service members and their families.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions would likely play a specific role in these supports, which could mean expansions in the funding those institutions receive from the federal government.

Campus Safety and Civil Rights

In the final portion of her speech, Sen. Murray discussed campus safety and civil rights. This topic has grown in prominence over the last several years, as hate crimes on college campuses increase and reporting sexual assault becomes more common. Agreeing what role the federal government should play in how campuses respond to safety and civil rights issues could be one of the most contentious parts of this HEA negotiation given the vastly different responses to the issues by party, particularly the Trump administration’s proposed changes to sexual assault guidelines for colleges and universities.

Sen. Murray closed her speech citing the several times she and Sen. Alexander worked together in a bipartisan manner to pass important legislation and said she is ready to work hard to do so again. Then she told the story of how she – a Pell Grant and work-study recipient – and her six siblings all benefitted from the federal government’s investment in them to attend higher education, but that today’s system does not support students in the same way.

She closed on this note: “Today’s higher education system often reinforces the inequity in our society, and federal investments can either close or widen those divides. The choice is up to us.”

See a video of Sen. Murray's speech here.

(Official portrait via Sen. Murray's website.)