AT LAST--AFTER SIX YEARS, three Congresses, and 14 extensions of the existing law, the House and Senate finally agreed to legislation reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, and in August President George W. Bush signed it.
The end to the protracted consideration of the measure was, by contrast, quick and routine. The House vote was 380 to 49, the Senate’s was 83 to 8, and Bush signed it without comment. The 1,158-page law will be the basis of federal higher education policy, including student aid, for the next five years.
The result of months of work by a joint House-Senate conference committee after each house had passed its own version earlier in the year, the legislation emerged in its final form as the Higher Education Opportunity Act (H.R. 4137). Among its key provisions, the Act:
--Requires the top 5 percent of colleges that have the greatest cost increases for their sector to submit detailed reports to the secretary of education explaining why their costs have risen and what they will do to hold costs down.
--Replaces the complex, seven-page Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with a two-page “EZ-FAFSA.”
--Bars lenders from offering gifts to college officials as a condition of making student loans, and requires colleges to adopt a code of conduct regarding student loans.
--Helps service members, veterans, and their families attend and pay for college by providing interest-free deferral on student loans while service members are on active duty, in-state tuition rates for service members and their families who move to a new state due to military service, and new college scholarships of up to $5,000 for children and family members of service members who have died since 9/11.
--Allows low-income students to receive Pell Grants year-round, expands eligibility for the Academic Competitiveness and National SMART Grant programs, and expands federal loan forgiveness for a wide variety of professions, including civil legal aid lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders, and teachers.
The act also contains major provisions to help students with disabilities attend college, supports innovative training programs for K-12 teachers, expands support for minority-serving institutions, and creates special programs to address the nation’s nursing shortage.
Congressional leaders involved in crafting the bill uniformly hailed its enactment and cited its highlights. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) pointed to its focus on holding colleges more accountable for their costs, addressing ethical scandals in the student loan marketplace, and expanding grant aid for the neediest students, in addition to simplifying the financial aid application process. “As the cost of college continues to rise, this bill could not come at a more crucial moment,” Kennedy said in a statement issued by his Washington office. Recovering at his Cape Cod home after surgery for a brain tumor, he missed the last-minute deliberation and the final Senate vote.
“Today’s students face daunting obstacles on the path to college, from skyrocketing tuition prices to predatory student lending practices. This landmark bipartisan legislation will address those challenges and create a higher education system that is more consumer-friendly, fairer, and easier to navigate,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) in another statement.
“This bill is critical to enhancing our economic security and improving the knowledge and skills that are the gateway to the future for our students, working families, and businesses,” said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). The measure “puts quality information in the hands of consumers and takes meaningful steps to hold down the college cost increases that are threatening students’ ability to pursue their higher education dream,” added Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.).
In a letter to members of Congress after the law was passed, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said that while the White House supported many parts of the measure, there are concerns about more than 60 “new, costly, and duplicative programs” that will be created. There was speculation in Washington that Bush might veto the bill for that reason, and some insiders think that’s why he had no comments when he signed it.
In a letter to members of the House and Senate, President Molly Corbett Broad of the American Council for Education applauded the “number of very desirable” provisions in the bill, including the Pell Grants changes and the simplified financial aid process. She also pointed to a provision that will prohibit the secretary of education from regulating the academic affairs of accrediting agencies and higher ed institutions—a ban long sought by those agencies and institutions.
However, she continued, while the higher education community is pleased to have work on the bill completed, the measure still includes “a number of drawbacks”—most notably the creation of an “extraordinary” number of new federal reporting and regulatory requirements that will be imposed on colleges and universities. They deal with textbooks, tuition and fees, cost of attendance, alumni activities, foreign gift reporting, fire safety, graduation rates, drug violations, and peer-to-peer file sharing. “Although some of these have been made less onerous as the legislative process has proceeded, the total volume of new federal requirements remains considerable,” Broad wrote.
She called the new requirements an “unfortunate result” of an overriding concern of policymakers and the public alike for controlling college tuition costs. The “numerous unfunded mandates” imposed on colleges and universities compete with that goal, Broad said, and complying with them “will be time-consuming and inevitably will increase administrative and personnel costs on campuses.”
Broad signed her letter to legislators on behalf of the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Community College Trustees, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, EDUCAUSE, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, in addition to ACE.
Some of their concerns are likely to be addressed as the Department of Education begins considering how to implement the new law’s provisions. ACE, on behalf of and working with other higher education organizations, is expected to be deeply involved in that process, which will include the drafting of detailed regulations.
Also on Capitol Hill, ACE called on senators to support legislation to dramatically increase the number of American college students who study abroad. While the House passed its version of the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act (H.R. 1469) last year, it has been stalled in the Senate.
The Senate version (S. 991), introduced last year by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), enjoys broad bipartisan support, with 50 sponsors. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it earlier this year.
But as often happens in the legislative process, the measure has been included in another bill, the Advancing America’s Priorities Act (S. 3297), a “megabill” comprised of more than 30 unrelated measures. Many of them, like the Simon Act, have strong bipartisan support but have been blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) because they authorize significant new federal spending. Coburn, who believes the Senate passes too many spending bills with too little study beforehand, is known for holding up bills and forcing the Senate to take roll call votes that record where senators stand.
The Simon bill would create a foundation named for the late Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who served 10 years in the House and 12 in the Senate. The foundation would award grants to American students for study abroad, to nongovernmental organizations that provide and promote study abroad, and directly to colleges and universities. The bill’s stated target is to have one million American students studying abroad in 10 years.
That goal is “vital and feasible,” Broad wrote to Senators. “Strong study abroad programs are important to our economic competitiveness, our future diplomacy and security efforts, and clearly, the education of our students,” she stated.
On another issue, as it began considering legislation to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Senate Education Committee held a roundtable to determine the “proper scope of coverage” for the law. The legislation, passed last June by the House, seeks to broaden the range of individuals eligible for protection under the act.
Although the higher ed community in Washington has no problem with that, it is concerned that the legislation potentially could expand the educational accommodations that institutions must provide to students under the law. ACE Senior Vice President Terry Hartle, who participated in the roundtable, asked senators to reaffirm directly in the statute the current case law principle that institutions need not provide an accommodation when doing so would alter essential aspects of programs or fundamentally alter or diminish their academic standards.
It was unclear whether or how the Senate would act on the measure and if there would be time for the House to agree to any changes before this session of Congress ends.
Alan Dessoff is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.