IN THE MIDST OF AN INTENSIVE schedule of primary elections around the country, members of Congress are hard-pressed to focus on the public's legislative business. But one key measure important to colleges and universities-reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA)-appeared to be a step closer to enactment as the new year began.
House Democrats signaled that they were likely to seek a final floor vote early in the 2008 opening session on the College Opportunity and Affordability Act (H.R.4137), legislation that would reauthorize the HEA, the primary federal law aimed at expanding college access for low- and middle-income students. Then all that would be left would be a conference with the Senate to agree on a final version of the measure early this year.
H.R. 4137 is the second of two major higher education bills introduced in the current Congress. The first, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, was signed into law by President Bush last September. It provides an additional $20 billion in financial aid for students and families over the next five years.
As approved unanimously by the House Education and Labor Committee in November, H.R. 4137 builds on the earlier funding boost by "reducing or eliminating many of the obstacles that prevent fully qualified students from going to college," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the committee chair, at the time. The measure "refl ects the bipartisan consensus that has emerged about the need to rein in rising college costs," added the panel's senior Republican, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.). The legislation contains a number of provisions welcomed by the higher education community. The American Council on Education cites year-round Pell Grants and simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. ACE also supports an amendment offered by Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to strengthen the value of the student loan cohort default rate as an indicator of institutional viability and integrity.
Requirements of the pending legislation include attempts to control peer-to-peer file sharing.
But as the measure neared final passage, ACE leaders remained concerned about many of its other parts, including what they call new "complex and confusing" provisions on college costs and hundreds of new reporting and record-keeping requirements that would be imposed on colleges and universities. Among other things, the requirements include attempts to regulate fire safety on campus, control peer-to-peer file sharing using university computer networks, and disclose information on donors of all foreign and domesticgifts above $1 million.
In a letter in late November to presidents of other postsecondary organizations, ACE's president, David Ward, vowed stepped-up efforts to resolve as many of the troubling provisions as possible before the fi nal House vote and subsequent conference with the Senate.
One last-minute amendment, offered by Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) and accepted by the committee on a voice vote-much to the displeasure of the higher ed community-struck important language on accreditation from the bill. "We are taking particular care to work on resolving this important issue," Ward said, also in the letter.
Meanwhile, as 2008 began, ACE and several other higher ed associations were laying the groundwork for a fight on another issue: extension of the expiring IRA Charitable Rollover. It permits IRA owners starting at age 70? to make tax-free gifts totaling up to $100,000 annually from their IRAs directly to eligible charities-including colleges and universities.
To gather information on the impact of the provision as a critical part of their advocacy efforts for the extension, ACE and other associations planned to launch a survey of IRA Rollover donations to higher ed institutions. The groups encouraged institutions to participate in the survey to help make a compelling case for the continuation of the key giving incentive.
<em>Alan Dessoff is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.</em>