Education Under Secretary Speaks at CHEA Summer Workshop; Updates on HEA Reauthorization Legislation

Publication Number 43 July 7, 2014


The accreditation community heard for the first time from newly confirmed Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) 2014 Summer Workshop on June 25.

Mitchell stated that U.S. Department of Education (USDE) regulations governing accreditation should be "less prescriptive, less costly and less granular." He noted that USDE's quality agenda centers around consumer protection, including accreditation's role in access, attainment, affordability and promoting innovation. Mitchell also stressed the importance of clarifying the roles of accrediting organizations, the federal government and the states, while affirming USDE's support for accreditation retaining its role as the gatekeeper for Title IV and other federal funds. Addressing the recently concluded negotiated rulemaking on state authorization rules (see Federal Update #42), he noted "We are pausing on state authorization," saying "this is complicated and we want to get it right." 


Leadership of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee recently introduced bills and released legislative proposals for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). First passed in 1965, the HEA - which governs higher education financial aid and related issues, including accreditation - was last reauthorized by Congress in 2008. While a large legislative proposal addressing a range of issues and a draft bill addressing federal student financial aid simplification were released in the Senate, other smaller bills focusing on specific aspects of higher education regulation were introduced in the House. Additionally, House Republicans issued a white paper on their HEA reauthorization agenda.

The recent activity around HEA reauthorization - with bills introduced, draft legislation released and a white paper issued - is unusual. Typically, the HEA is reauthorized through a large omnibus bill.


On June 25, 2014, Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a discussion draft of HEA reauthorization legislation. Titled The Higher Education Affordability Act, the 785-page proposal covers a wide range of higher education-related issues and includes topics addressed through previously introduced bills. Provisions addressing accreditation include requirements that accreditation be more transparent. Accrediting organizations would be required to make a number of documents available to the public, including 1) self-studies by institutions, 2) accreditation team reports on site visits, 3) accrediting organizations’ reports on compliance by institutions and programs with accreditation standards and performance with respect to student achievement and 4) reports on all adverse actions taken against accredited institutions or programs and all supporting documentation for such action. Additionally, USDE would be required to provide a Webpage that provides a single point of access to these accreditation documents.

HELP Committee Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released a draft bill on June 19, 2014 addressing federal student financial aid. The Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act, cosponsored by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), would replace the current Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which requires applicants to answer more than 100 questions, with a form asking two questions: family size and family income from two years prior to seeking a student loan. The bill also would reduce the existing six federal student loan programs to three: one undergraduate loan program, one graduate loan program and one parent loan program. 


In the House of Representatives, Republicans introduced three bills on June 26, 2014 addressing transparency and federal student financial aid:

  • The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (H.R. 4983) would make a range of information on colleges and universities available to students and parents, including completion data, graduation rates, cost of attendance and student debt and loan default statistics, by creating a College Dashboard on USDE’s Website. The bill would require that USDE’s existing College Navigator be maintained until the College Dashboard is complete and publicly available.
  • The Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 4984) directs USDE to provide enhanced counseling for students taking out federal loans, including developing more online information available from USDE on understanding the student loan process. 
  • The Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act (H.R. 4982) also attracted two House Democrats as cosponsors. The bill would direct USDE to base calculations of financial aid needs on a family’s income two years prior to seeking a student loan, and also would require more data sharing between USDE and the Internal Revenue Service. The bill’s intent – simplifying the federal student financial aid process – is similar to legislation introduced by Senator Lamar Alexander (see above) but would involve less sweeping change to FAFSA than Senator Alexander’s bill.

In addition, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair John Kline (R-MN) and Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) released a white paper on June 24, 2014 outlining House Republicans’ agenda and policy proposals for HEA reauthorization. The white paper notes that “federal policy should protect the balance of responsibilities that has always existed” among accreditation, the federal government and the states, stating that the balance has been upended by “a series of burdensome regulations.” Included in the white paper is a link to the CHEA Initiative Final Report, published in November, 2012 to provide policy recommendations in advance of HEA reauthorization.


In addition to legislation addressing issues related to HEA reauthorization, Senate bills addressing other higher education issues with an impact on accreditation were recently introduced:

  • On June 19, 2014, Senators Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Tom Harkin introduced the Correctly Recognizing Educational Achievements to Empower Graduates Act (S. 2506). The bill would award competitive grants to states to encourage the establishment or expansion of "reverse transfer" programs to identify and award degrees to students who have a combination of community college and four-year university credits that may qualify them for an associate’s degree but who have not received one.
  • Senator Michael Bennet and bipartisan cosponsors introduced S. 2513 on June 23, 2014 to establish a demonstration project for competency-based education. Similarly, USDE published a Federal Register notice on December 6, 2013 seeking ideas for its Experimental Sites Initiative that would allow colleges and universities to experiment with alternative forms of measuring student learning, such as competency-based education. Both Senator Bennet's bill and USDE's Experimental Sites Initiative would permit student finncial aid to be disbursed based on measurement of learning rather than measurement of instructional or learning time.

CHEA will follow this legislation and report on any developments.