With legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) lumbering toward enactment, although its final form remains uncertain, the higher education community in Washington is paying attention to new developments in other areas.
One issue: regulations issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to broaden law enforcement's ability to monitor electronic communications involving suspected terrorists and criminals.
The new regulations extend to universities, as well as libraries, airport public wireless networks, and commercial Internet service providers, provisions of the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. That measure directed telephone companies to redesign their networks to enable law enforcement agencies to have remote access to their systems.
The rules, newly issued by the FCC, extend the remote access requirements to computer networks. Implementation requires all Internet service providers, including IHEs, to upgrade network switches and routers by June 2007 to enable remote monitoring. The cost to upgrade computer networks at IHEs is estimated at $7 billion, according to the American Council on Education (www.acenet.edu), which quickly challenged the FCC's rules in the federal appellate court for the District of Columbia.
"Potentially, this is a huge deal over a complicated set of issues," says ACE Senior Vice President Terry W. Hartle. Some people would argue there is a broader privacy issue here. "What we have argued is simply that we will comply; we are anxious to do our part in the war on terror, but what the government is asking us to do is very expensive for very little return."
Higher ed institutions have long worked with law enforcement agencies pursuing criminal investigations, adds Sheldon E. Steinbach, ACE vice president and general counsel. He says that by filing suit, ACE hopes to convince the FCC that institutions "can provide the same access through alternative approaches" without having to shell out $7 billion.
"When you evaluate efficiency versus the incredible cost of compliance, we just don't think it makes a lot of sense," Steinbach says.
In another development, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings kicked off a national commission established to shape the future of higher ed in the U.S. and asked it to submit specific recommendations by August 1, 2006, on four areas: accessibility, affordability, accountability, and quality.
The commission, made up of 19 business, foundation, and higher ed representatives, got an immediate taste of its mission when the College Board reported that there continue to be significant long-term concerns about college access and affordability.
Although average grant aid per student is growing, it's not by enough to prevent increased reliance on borrowing, the College Board stated. Low-income students receive more grant aid, on average, than higher-income students, but new student aid policies have benefited those in the upper half of the income distribution most.
Meanwhile, the Senate and House are still moving in their own ways to reauthorize the HEA. At the outset of the congressional budget process last February, both bodies agreed to reduce the federal deficit by $35 billion over five years by cutting entitlement programs, a process known as reconciliation. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions must contribute one-third of the total cuts in the Senate.
In October, the Senate Committee approved budget reconciliation legislation that encompasses HEA reauthorization. The measure cuts $15.1 billion over five years from the federal student loan and pension programs. The House Education and Workforce Committee cut $20.8 billion.
Higher ed lobbyists continue voicing concerns over spending cuts. But Congress is under pressure to help pay for hurricane relief and the war in Iraq. Unsure when it will complete reauthorization, Congress extended programs under HEA as they stand until December 31.
Alan Dessoff is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.