AS CONGRESS APPEARED TO be finally nearing the end of an on-again, off-again effort to reauthorize the Higher Education Act for the first time in five years, the news of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's (D-Mass.) cancer diagnosis cast a pall over the Capitol and also gave signs of impacting the progress of HEA's renewal. Kennedy played a key role in steering negotiations by a House-Senate conference committee on legislation agreeable to both houses to reauthorize HEA. The timing of final approval of a bill--as well as how some of the measure's more contentious provisions, revealed in a draft report, will be resolved--are now unclear.
Congressional staff members have continued trying to work out differences between the long, complex HEA bills passed earlier by the House and Senate. But Kennedy's illness "may alter the timetable in unknown ways," American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad wrote to other leaders of the higher education community in Washington.
ACE and several other higher education associations in the capital analyzed the draft conference report that has been circulating through the capital, and Broad, on behalf of all of them, reported in a "Dear Colleague" letter on several issues of concern in the higher ed community.
One hot issue is accreditation. Both the House and Senate HEA bills would prohibit the secretary of education from regulating the standards accrediting agencies use to evaluate colleges and universities. But while the draft conference report prohibits federal regulation in such areas as student achievement, curriculum, and admissions, "it would reopen the door" to regulation in other key areas, Broad said.
It would let the secretary issue regulations related to faculty, student support services, and fiscal and administrative capacity, for one. "We do not believe, given its previous efforts to impose excessive regulation, that the department should have open-ended authority to impose regulations on such basic academic considerations as faculty," Broad wrote.
The draft bill would require accrediting agencies to evaluate the dozens of federally required student disclosure mandates, such as campus crime and refund policy, during site visits. Accreditation teams, mostly faculty, "are not knowledgeable about these detailed requirements," and such a mandate would divert accreditors' attention from their core mission, Broad said.
On the issue of cost and affordability lists, provisions in the conference draft "will complicate, rather than clarify, public understanding of the price of a college education," Broad wrote. Born of a desire to embarrass higher ed institutions with rapid tuition increases on the one hand, and an interest in giving families more information about actual costs on the other, the draft "does neither of these things well" and instead would require the Department of Education to produce "dozens of lists with a variety of complex and sometimes inconsistent information," noted Broad.
Complexity also is a problem, with the "huge number" of new regulatory and recordkeeping requirements for IHEs contained in both the House and Senate HEA bills. The conference draft streamlines some of these requirements, but it still would "dramatically increase the burden imposed on institutions," Broad wrote.
As drafted, the HEA bill is "complicated [and] incoherent, and will be costly to implement without providing significant benefits to students and families," Broad concluded. She urged the nation's higher ed leaders to discuss the issues with members of the House and Senate.
Signing the letter with Broad were the presidents of the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of American Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
With the impact of American military action in the Middle East continuing to hover over the Capitol, Congress enacted and President George W. Bush signed a $162 billion war funding bill that also contains a significant expansion of educational benefits available to veterans.
Increased benefits will be available for all who have served on active duty in the military since September 11, 2001. Veterans can receive payments up to the cost of the most expensive public institution in their state, plus a monthly housing stipend. For veterans attending a private IHE, the government would pay up to the level of the highest-cost public school.
Any remaining balance would be divided between the IHE and the government, ensuring full tuition for eligible veterans at any institution. Veterans would have up to 15 years after leaving active duty, compared to 10 years under the current Montgomery GI Bill, to use these benefits. If certain conditions are met, they also can transfer the benefits to members of their immediate families.
The expanded benefits originated as a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Marine veteran and former Secretary of the Navy and strong advocate for increasing college and job training opportunities for troops reentering civilian life. His son served in the military in Iraq.
Off the hill, President George W. Bush signed an executive order on June 6 that will impact colleges entering government contracts. It directs federal departments and agencies to require government contractors to use the Department of Homeland Security E-Verify system to establish the immigration status of newly hired employees and all employees working on government contracts. E-Verify is designed to electronically verify employment eligibility. The president directed DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Attorney General Michael Mukasey to administer and enforce the order.
Also, the Department of Education released draft instructions to help IHEs running a shortfall in federal Perkins Loan revolving funds, allowing them to recoup institutional short-term loans to the funds over a longer period. As explained by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), this was accomplished by changing instructions for filling out the annual report IHEs provide to the DOE on the operation of campus-based aid programs.
A recent NACUBO and Coalition of Higher Education Assistance Organizations survey showed that almost 30 percent of responding IHEs expected a shortfall in their Perkins Loan funds this year. A NACUBO statement said the change will allow IHEs to choose to repay themselves over the course of several years to lessen the impact on their ability to make new loans to students in the coming year.
Alan Dessoff is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.