President's Post by L. Scott Lissner

Higher Education Act Reauthorization & Disability

Posted: July, 1 2014

It is early in what is likely to be a long series of partisan exchanges on higher education as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act moves through Congress. Last week, both the Democrats and Republicans released their plans.

Tom Harkin, Chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee released the Democratic plan which focuses on affordability and access to higher education through year-round Pell Grants, new accountability measures, and protections for student loan borrowers (Learn more here: http://www.help.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=5d38939d-4dc5-4ca8-9924-5762c9bb30e7). In the House, John Kline, Chair of the Education & Workforce Committee released the Republican priorities which focus on reducing federal regulation and shifting accountability by providing consumers with more information and consolidating student aid programs (Learn more here: http://edworkforce.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hea_whitepaper.pdf). Neither of these high level summaries include a focus on disability. I am hopeful this is because disability issues have a long bipartisan history and that they won’t become a pawn in partisan politics like the CRPD.

We will find out more about disability as the legislation unfolds. On the Senate side Harkin will be introducing a comprehensive bill (Learn more here: http://www.help.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=ed919fdc-2cce-49ba-a097-754d0aa598bd&groups=Chair). While Kline indicated that Republicans plan on a segmented approach, introducing a series of smaller bills targeting specific issues (Learn more here: http://edworkforce.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=386108).

The Democratic proposal provides details of their approach to disability in Title IX of the draft reauthorization bill “The Higher Education Affordability Act” which you can view at: http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/HEAA%20Discussion%20Draft%20Language%206.25.14.pdf beginning on Page 596. There are five central elements which resulted from discussion with AHEAD and many of our sister organizations and reflect the disability community’s priorities. They include:

 

  • The establishment of a National Data Center on Higher Education and Disability to collect, maintain, and disseminate data about the participation and outcomes of postsecondary education students with disabilities;
  • The establishment of requirements for the provision of Accessible Instruction Materials (AIM) as a follow up to the important work done by the AIM Commission established under your recommendation during the last (then HEOA) reauthorization; and
  • The creation of a Commission addressing the issues related to serving and including students with psychiatric disabilities in higher education.
  • The establishment of National Technical Assistance Centers to enhance educational access by providing information to students with disabilities and their families;The enhancement of existing, and establishment of new, transition programs for students with disabilities (including but not limited to individuals who are deaf and blind or have intellectual disabilities) from secondary to postsecondary settings;

Of the first three Republican bills submitted (Learn more here: hhttp://edworkforce.house.gov/highered/) one, the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (Learn more here: http://edworkforce.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hr_4983.pdf) includes disability. The bill focuses on a higher education dashboard to improve transparency; aiding students in choosing colleges. Included in Representative Foxx’s bill is a requirement to report,

“The percentage of undergraduate students enrolled at the institution who are formally registered with the office of disability services of the institution (or the equivalent office) as students with disabilities, except that if such percentage is three percent or less, the institution shall report ‘three percent or less’.”

AHEAD is pleased to see students with disabilities recognized in this bill. The requirement is congruent with the data collection and dissemination in the Democratic proposal but does not include the richer and more useful data on outcomes detailed in the Senate proposal. We hope that as future pieces of Republican legislation are unveiled, this and the other priorities of the disability community will be addressed.

AHEAD cannot overstate the importance of these five critical areas reflected in the Senate proposal (collection of participation and outcomes data, accessible instructional materials, understanding and including individuals with psychiatric disabilities, technical support for students and families, and supporting transition to postsecondary education) and look forward to being of service to our members, their institutions, the students they serve, and Congress as we move through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

L. Scott Lissner, President, AHEAD