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Congress acts on higher ed

Omnibus compromise bill overhauls American post-secondary system


 

Both houses of U.S. Congress reauthorized federal higher-education legislation for the first time in a decade yesterday. The bill will now be sent to the desk of President George W. Bush for final approval.

The House of Representatives approved the bill by a margin of 380-49, and the Senate followed later in the evening with a vote of 83-8.

The nearly 1,200-page omnibus bill, described by Inside Higher Ed as having “the feel of a conglomeration that includes everything but the kitchen sink,” did indeed include something for everybody. One of the most appreciated elements of the bill raises the annual limit of Pell Grants to $9,000 and makes them available year-round. Application processes for aid will also be simplified.

Pell Grants are needs-based and meant to increase access to higher education for low-income students. Introduced in 1980 as the successor program to the Basic Education Opportunity Grants introduced in 1972. Last year, the grants were limited to just over $4,000 for the academic year.

The U.S. Department of Education will now report the least and most expensive schools in the country, split into several categories including private and public institutions. Institutions whose tuition rises particularly quickly over a short period of years will have to justify the rising costs.

Reuters’ report focused on student-loan fairness. All lenders will now be forced to disclose the terms of their loans, the story says, as “a response to scandals uncovered last year involving kickback schemes and conflicts on interest between lenders and school officials.”

California Democrat Rep. George Miller, the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, told the Washington Post that the overhaul will make it easier to pursue higher education.

“This legislation will create a higher-education system that is more affordable, fairer and easier to navigate for students and families,” he said.

Tennesee Senator Lamar Alexander begged to differ with Miller, telling the Post that the bill regulates institutions too much.

“The greatest threat to higher education isn’t underfundingit’s over-regulation,” he said.

An Air Force Times report celebrated the provisions in the bill dedicated to helping soldiers access higher education. Military families who are stationed outside of their home state are often forced to pay out-of-state tuition fees. The bill will change that, allowing families who have lived in a state for 30 days to pay in-state fees. According to the Times, it will also “set up a scholarship program for family members of troops and veterans; establish support centers to help veterans succeed in college and graduate; and prohibit discrimination against students who serve in the armed forces when they seek to be readmitted after an absence because of military duty.”

Not everyone was pleased. University of Bridgeport president Neil A. Salonen told the Connecticut Post that “it’s nowhere near the bill we need to improve higher education in this country.”

In a release, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers lamented part of the bill that mandated “hundreds of new reporting requirements and several special interest provisions.”

The bill also includes anti-piracy provisions that will encourage schools to provide their students with access to legal downloading services.

Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, told San Jose’s Mercury News that these reauthorizations usually prompt a national debate about higher education, something that was missing this time around.

“It’s probably the least consequential of all the Higher Education Act reauthorizations that have been passed,” he said. “At certain points in time, it’s in the best interests of the country to have that discussion about the future of higher education.”

Bush is expected to sign the bill into law.


 
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