Reform needed as public losing faith in universities, says Foxx

Republican house committee chair sets sights on passing comprehensive higher-education legislation as she returns to position held under Trump regime

March 13, 2023
Source: United States Government

Representative Virginia Foxx planned to leverage the decline in the public perception of higher education to usher in a new era of stronger accountability for US colleges and universities as she reprised her role as chairwoman of the house education committee.

It was “exactly the right time” to reauthorise the Higher Education Act of 1965, Dr Foxx told Inside Higher Ed in an interview. The last reauthorisation was in 2008, and the law is supposed to be renewed every five years. Dr Foxx and other lawmakers have tried over the years to pass comprehensive higher-education legislation, only for those efforts to fail, and observers have been sceptical that meaningful higher-education bills can pass both chambers during this session of Congress.

Still, Dr Foxx was hopeful that she could get a bill across the finish line before the end of next year, even though Democrats control both the Senate and the White House. That was because, she said, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed gaps in the higher-education system and fuelled falls in positive public opinion about higher education.

“The reason I think we can do it this year is that higher ed has never been held in such low esteem as it is now,” she said. “In the past, we had members who were a little shy about doing it, because the presidents of their universities would come to them and say ‘No, no, no, you can’t bother us’, and they would be intimidated by them. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case this year.”

In her first two months as chair, Dr Foxx has organised one hearing on the “crises” in American education, filed numerous requests for information with the Department of Education and called attention to the cost and value of a college degree. She has also shown a willingness to bring the culture wars that have been waged in schools and on college campuses into the hearing room. The committee’s first markup session on 8 March – views are studied in detail at such sessions – focused on bills that would prevent transgender students from playing on school or college teams that matched their gender identity and would create a Parents’ Bill of Rights with regard to children’s education.

“Those are not related to issues of cost or quality or access or innovative practices in higher education,” said Jon Fansmith, senior vice-president for government relations at the American Council on Education. “Those are very divisive culture war issues that are being raised.”

Nevertheless, Mr Fansmith said it was good for higher education that Dr Foxx had returned as chair. “She clearly cares deeply about a lot of issues in higher education,” he said.

Lobbyists and higher education watchers familiar with the committee’s work acknowledged that Dr Foxx probably wanted to pass substantive legislation but cast doubt on her ability to move a reauthorisation through Congress, pointing to the need for bipartisan buy-in and the politics of the Republican conference, in which members appear more interested in oversight and messaging bills – bills in which the message sent out is more important than the likelihood of them being passed. The committee’s oversight role and Dr Foxx’s megaphone as chair will probably have the most impact on the national conversation about higher education, they said.

“The narrative about the value and cost of higher education is something that we care a lot about,” said Craig Lindwarm, vice-president for governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “We are very concerned about the narrative and want to make sure that we’re articulating that value proposition appropriately.”

Reauthorising the Higher Education Act is one of Dr Foxx’s top priorities, along with reauthorising the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which is aimed at helping jobseekers access employment, education and training. Dr Foxx was a key leader in 2014 when the act was last updated.

“She cares about higher education policy and wants to do more substantive legislating,” Mr Lindwarm said, adding that Dr Foxx also had to serve the political goals of the caucus as committee chair. “Is HEA reauthorisation really a priority for the caucus?” he asked. 

A familiar face

The 79-year-old North Carolina Republican has said that she is the only one in Congress with the legislative and higher education experience to enact certain reforms. First elected to the House in 2004, she has developed a reputation as a staunch conservative. In the higher-education realm, she is a proponent of for-profit institutions and fewer regulations, and a fierce opponent of the College Transparency Act, which would have given students and families more information about college programmes and outcomes by requiring colleges and universities to report certain data.

Before serving in Congress, Dr Foxx was a sociology instructor at Appalachian State University and president of Mayland Community College. She’s a long-time member of the house education committee, which she first chaired during the Trump administration.

“Dr Foxx has an extraordinary knowledge of federal higher-education policy,” said David Baime, senior vice-president for governmental relations at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “We know how strongly committed she is to workforce Pell, and we are counting on Congress to enact legislation along these lines.”

Dr Foxx has already sponsored legislation this session to expand the Pell Grant to programmes that run for at least eight weeks. The policy initiative known as short-term Pell or workforce Pell has been a priority for several higher-education groups, including the AACC, for several years, but whether for-profit institutions would be included in the expansion has been a sticking point. Dr Foxx wants for-profits included.

Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a bipartisan non-profit that works to improve outcomes for students, said she was optimistic for Dr Foxx’s tenure as chair, given her focus on community college students and better connecting the world of higher education and the workforce.

“That’s where we see a lot of need for today’s students,” she said.

Passing education-related legislation will require Dr Foxx and other Republicans to work with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and the Biden administration. Mr Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

On Mr Sanders, Dr Foxx said she was hoping that “people who are to the far right and far left come together” and find common ground.

Mr Sanders hasn’t said much about his higher-education priorities yet, though he has been a vocal advocate for free community colleges. The committee’s top Republican, Louisiana senator Bill Cassidy, did talk briefly about reauthorising the Higher Education Act during his remarks at the committee’s first meeting.

On the Biden administration, Dr Foxx said she had talked to education secretary Miguel Cardona many times but diverging philosophical positions made it difficult to find common ground with officials.

“I get along with them fine, but their worldview is so different from the worldview of the majority of the people in this country that it’s really difficult to understand where they’re coming from,” she said.

Higher-education accountability

When Dr Foxx last led the committee, she proposed ending some loan-repayment plans and, as part of a bill that would have reauthorised the HEA, added tying federal funding to outcomes for some institutions and rolling back regulations governing for-profit colleges. That bill passed the committee but never received a floor vote.

Since Dr Foxx last held the committee’s gavel, the national conversation about higher education has shifted, in part because of the pandemic. Higher education has also become a divisive issue as voters become more polarised and conservative lawmakers have taken steps to remake state universities.

“The public is much more vocal now than it has been in the past,” she said. “You’re seeing trustees who are aware of the problems in the colleges and universities, and that’s a huge deal. Trustees are now speaking up and forming groups, particularly on speech issues, but also on accountability issues. I am very, very pleased with the responses you’re seeing in the general public.”

Dr Foxx said buy-in from the entire Republican conference would be key to passing comprehensive higher-education legislation. She also hoped to get Democrats on board, but she was not optimistic.

“For some reason, Democrats don’t seem to want accountability, and that is a major focus for us,” Dr Foxx said.

For Dr Foxx, holding colleges and universities accountable means requiring institutions to give students and parents more information up front about the cost of attendance, graduation rates, job prospects and earnings. “People can vote with their feet,” she said.

A new accountability system could also have a provision for risk-sharing, in which colleges and universities would be on the hook for loans that students could not pay back, she said.

“If they’re admitting students who can’t make it, who don’t pay back their loans, we think the school should have to pay some of that money back,” she said.

Higher-education associations opposed the risk-sharing concept when she proposed it in 2017.

Other topics

On the push at state level against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at public universities, Dr Foxx said she wanted colleges to have freedom to decide whom they hire, but that did not mean public colleges should require statements from prospective employees about their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Government has no business dictating that kind of thing, and there really should not be a penalty for people holding a different point of view from those that others hold,” she said. “That’s all about academic freedom, but we see that the left believes in academic freedom when it goes one way.”

More broadly, Dr Foxx said she wanted the country’s education systems to be seen as the best in the world.

“Frankly, right now, that’s eroding,” she said. “People are not looking to the United States as much as they have in the past for having the best education institutions in the world, and that’s troubling to me.”

This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed

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