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How Senate Democrats and House Republicans want to remake American higher education

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Here it is: the two-page summary of the Senate proposal to rewrite the Higher Education Act, the main law controlling federal financial aid. This law is the core of how the federal government exerts its will with higher education in the US on everything from student loans to sexual assault.

House Republicans released an 11-page white paper Tuesday on their vision for reauthorizing the law, which expires at the end of this year but will remain in effect until Congress gets around to rewriting it.

The Senate proposal focuses on easing the burden of student loan debt, plus holding for-profit colleges accountable. The House proposal adopts some of the recommendations that outside groups have urged to help students complete college, mostly the less controversial ones, and calls for rolling back most of the Obama administration's regulatory agenda on higher education.

If Congress writes a bill with just what legislators agree on from these two proposals, they'll end up with streamlined income-based repayment for student loans — a process that right now has plenty of red tape — and some kind of way to let low-income students receive Pell Grants in the summer. And that's about it.

The Republican proposal hints at future cuts to the Pell Grant, but doesn't elaborate:

Since the Pell Grant program was recklessly expanded, its ability to serve the neediest
students is now in jeopardy. The program must be put back on stable footing to ensure it
can help low-income students for generations to come.

And while blocking a plan from President Obama to rate colleges and distribute federal financial aid accordingly is a priority for House Republicans, defending the ratings is not a priority for Senate Democrats.

The really interesting parallels are between a proposal this week to simplify FAFSA and federal student aid programs and the House bill, which adopts those suggestions as part of a larger plan. Streamlining federal student aid down to one grant and one loan now has official bipartisan, bicameral support.

But it's not clear if the Senate Democrats who control the HELP committee will let that bill move on its own. It's equally possible that they'll insist on overhauling everything in the Higher Education Act at once, and those small areas of agreement will get bogged down in a bigger fight about for-profit colleges and student loan debt.

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