Higher Education Act enters House

    In a highly anticipated reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, House Republican leaders have introduced a bill that would keep Pell Grant awards flat and incorporate many of the proposals included in President George W. Bush’s budget directive.

    Co-sponsors Reps. John Boehner (R-OH) and Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) said their College Access and Opportunity Act of 2004, introduced on May 5, would expand college access to the needy and eliminate the “mystery behind higher-education financing.”

    “For almost a year, my colleagues and I have been working diligently to put forth a reauthorization package that increases college access for millions of low- and middle-income students, and this bill achieves just that,” McKeon said in a statement. “Although the college cost crisis is far from over, this bill makes tremendous progress so that more students can fulfill their dream of a higher education and can successfully achieve their full potential in life.”

    Expanding on the president’s call for higher loan caps, the bill will increase student loan limits for freshman and sophomore college students from $2,625 to $3,500 and from $3,500 to $4,500, though it will leave the current four-year ceiling the same. In addition, it will gradually reduce origination fees, a cost assessed by lenders when students take out loans, from the current 4 percent down to 1 percent.

    However, the proposal did not include the president’s request for making a 1-percent guarantee fee for loans mandatory, a plan that would have cost UCSD students, who currently don’t pay the fee, an extra $700,000 overall.

    At the same time, Boehner and McKeon’s bill calls for the implementation of Bush’s “Pell Grant Plus” plan, allowing students to receive an extra $1,000 for completing rigorous high school classes under a program run in 13 states. Because California does not participate in the program, its students would not be eligible for the extra aid.

    The proposal would also allow students to receive a second Pell Grant in an academic year to cover summer study, a plan that drew praise from California State University Chancellor Charles Reed during his testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce a week after the bill was made public. As the largest four-year university system in the country, California State University currently receives $316 million in Pell Grant awards for students studying at its 23 campuses, and constitutes 4.5 percent of the nation’s bachelor’s degree graduates.

    In a speech before the committee, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) criticized Republicans for keeping Pell Grant amounts unchanged. The bill again authorizes the maximum grant at $5,800, though lawmakers last year chose to fund the maximum award at $4,050, short of the authorized cap, and education groups expect the amount to remain static in 2004-05.

    Miller also condemned a portion of the bill that would no longer allow students to consolidate their loans at a low fixed rate, something its authors said was costing the government too much in fees, and estimated that students would have to pay $5,500 in interest without the option.

    “Just when millions of low- and middle-income students and their families are struggling to cover college costs, this bill actually forces students to pay thousands of dollars more for their college loans, caps the maximum Pell Grant and fails to provide meaningful relief from rising tuition prices,” Miller said during his speech.

    Rebecca Wasserman, president of the United States Student Association — the largest and oldest student coalition in the country — told Congress the bill was a disappointment.

    USSA opposed higher loan caps and variable consolidation rates, also criticizing a non-binding Sense of the Congress resolution within the legislation in support of an “Academic Bill of Rights,” which calls for an elimination of ideological biases in campus programs.

    “While we believe that some provisions in this bill will help students, overall we oppose the College Opportunity and Access Act, as it will force millions of low- and middle-income students to pay more for college, deny free speech rights to students across the country, and re-open the doors to fraud and abuse in the student aid programs,” Wasserman said.

    The proposal also drew criticism from several Washington education lobby groups.

    “If you look at the bill broadly, the issues that probably have raised the greatest concerns have more to do with what we would view as the regulatory part of the higher education bill and perhaps less to do with the student aid portion,” said Richard Harpel, director of federal relations at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, a group representing 212 institutions such as the University of California, including UCSD.

    Harpel, who analyzed the 203-page bill in the days after it became public, said he fears the proposal may actually increase costs for students, especially those at smaller universities.

    “On the regulatory side, there were just a number of things that seemed to tip the bill more and more in the direction of federalization of higher education — in a way that not only has potential to be intrusive into academic decisions, but I think may well increase the cost of education for all students by virtue of more unfunded reporting mandates — that in some cases would require significant increases in administrative costs,” he said.

    In addition to the “Academic Bill of Rights,” Harpel took issue with the new Academic Affordability Index, which would track college costs. However, the proposal did not include potential sanctions and loss of federal funding for universities that increase tuition far faster than the rate of inflation, as McKeon proposed in earlier legislation.

    The current bill would also require universities to increase reporting in areas of accreditation and transfer-credit policy.

    “Because of these troubling provisions, as well as others, I do not think any of the Washington, D.C., associations will be able to support this legislation in its current form,” American Council on Education President David Ward said in a statement. “But we are pleased to finally see an actual bill after months of discussion, meetings and hearings, and I hope we can make changes as the legislative process moves forward.”

    Before coming to the floor of the House, the legislation will be amended into final form by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce during the markup process. By law, Congress must reauthorize the Higher Education Act, first enacted in the 1960s, every five years.

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