The 109th congress be-gan business with reauthorization of the Higher Education Act topping the higher ed community's agenda. A year and a half later, HEA renewal still was not a done deal as the legislative body began to look toward the end of its session.
The House completed its part of the job in March, passing the College Access and Opportunity Act, which reauthorized the HEA for five more years. The Senate passed its first version of HEA reauthorization earlier this year as part of the Deficit Reduction Act, which included $12.7 billion in student loan cuts.
But following House action on the new reauthorization measure, the Senate was required to also approve a new version of the legislation. Ultimately, both houses must sign off on the same bill.
With each passing day, the calendar looms larger over HEA in the Senate. With a July 4 holiday, a scheduled four-week recess from August 7 through Labor Day, and a target adjournment date of October 6 so senators seeking re-election can campaign in their home states, the Senate's working days are whittling down, soon to be but a precious few.
"A lot will depend on whether the Democrats decide to make HEA reauthorization politically controversial, because with so little time left in the session, controversial measures will have difficulty getting to the floor," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president for Government and Public Affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE).
The Washington higher education community had significant reservations about several parts of the House bill, and concerns remained after its passage. But through intensive lobbying led by ACE before the final vote, postsecondary advocates were able to tone down what could have been some harsher actions.
Among other things, they gained approval of an amendment that wiped out many of the new reporting requirements related to college prices that were included in the bill sent to the floor by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The same amendment also eliminated language to allow state agencies to become accreditors approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
Some amendments to the committee bill that were particularly disturbing to institutions of higher education were defeated. One required any IHE receiving federal funds for international education programs under Title VI to report to the federal government any contributions or gifts they received from any source.
Another proposal voted down would have required every institution to provide an annual report of its student admissions process to the U.S. Department of Education. If the institution considered race, color, or national origin in its admissions, a more complex report would have been required.
Also averted was a proposal to require colleges to provide an annual report to the education department of steps taken to discourage illegal peer-to-peer file sharing.
ACE President David Ward, in a statement after the final vote, said the bill will make it easier for students to attend college by simplifying the federal financial aid application without overly regulating colleges and universities. However, he expressed disappointment that "federal budget constraints made it impossible to make further enhancements" to student aid programs.
If, for some reason, the 109th Congress nears the end of its session without agreement on HEA renewal, it still could act to temporarily extend the measure as it is now. Then it would be up to the 110th Congress that will be elected in November to start all over again in January.
Elsewhere in the Congress, House and Senate negotiators were completing work on tax-cut reconciliation legislation-the Tax Act of 2005-that included several issues important to higher education. One, a tax deduction for college tuition costs, seemed headed for an "extenders package" of tax provisions that could be approved outside the main reconciliation bill.
Unclear was what lawmakers might do to a provision for IRA charitable rollovers, which IHEs were seeking with a wide range of nonprofit groups. Rollovers would greatly benefit colleges and universities, as explained by ACE, by allowing older Americans to contribute assets held in IRAs to charities without first withdrawing the funds and recognizing them as income for tax purposes.
In a letter to House and Senate conferees, ACE and six other higher education associations spelled out their concerns about other provisions that they said were likely to affect charitable giving to colleges and universities. Among other things, those concerns related to deductions for cash contributions, certification of tax returns, and donor-advised funds that many colleges and universities sponsor.
Across Capitol Hill, meanwhile, action by the Supreme Court in one case and inaction in another were causing concerns in different parts of the higher education community.
The country's law schools suffered a setback when the high court rejected a challenge to military recruiting on college and university campuses. A coalition of law schools, calling themselves the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (FAIR), claimed that a law threatening to withhold federal funding from institutions that limit the access of military recruiters to campus infringed on free speech rights of universities. But the high court, in a unanimous 8-0 ruling written by new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. denied the FAIR argument.
In another case, the court decided not to hear arguments in a case that could increase colleges' exposure to whistle-blower suits. In the case, involving a lawsuit brought by a whistle-blower against Oakland City University (Ind.), the court upheld an Appeals Court ruling against the university last fall. The bottom line is that the university could face trial on the whistle-blower's allegation that Oakland City made false statements to the government about its compliance with a federal law that bans incentive payments to students who are recruiters for institutions that receive federal aid.
Elsewhere in Washington, anxieties were raised by reports leaking from a higher education commission established by the Bush administration last fall to review college costs and accountability. The commission, created by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, with 19 members representing both academia and the corporate world, reportedly is considering changes in how U.S. colleges are accredited and how federal student aid is managed.
Accountability issues underscore much of the commission's work. "I think the commission needs to decide whether the goal is to improve the quality of student learning or set up a rating system for institutions. If they set up a rating system, they will find themselves going to thin dimensions of student learning while missing out on what most people go to college for," says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the 1,100-member Association of American Colleges and Universities.
"People go to college to develop expertise in different areas," she continues. "A generalized test, by definition, is not designed to look at areas of expertise." The Bush administration's strategy to rank primary and secondary schools based on test scores "is not appropriate for the complexity of higher education," Schneider declares.
"There are a lot of ideas floating around but they haven't started to put much down on paper yet," says Hartle. The commission plans to issue a final report in August.
Alan Dessoff, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.