Pell Grants Overhauled by Divided House

In a decision largely split along party lines, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 221-199 last week to approve a new bill that Republican lawmakers say makes higher education more affordable.

The legislation allows students to receive Pell Grant funds year-round and repeals the federal limits on the amount of Pell Grant aid a student attending a very low-cost school may receive.

Originally, the bill, known as the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2005, faced extreme opposition from Democrats and student groups, who said that it did not do enough to help students pay for the costs of going to college. However, after some last-minute revisions, House Republicans were able to make the bill more palatable to opponents, leading many college groups to drop opposition and clearing the way for the bill’s passage on March 30.

Led by Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Republican leaders backed away from provisions that were the most contested by opponents, including a plan that would have altered the formula for distributing funds for student aid programs and eased requirements for colleges that repeatedly raise student fees.

Late on March 29, the bill’s supporters also agreed to make additional changes to the bill, and lawmakers voted to adopt an amendment introduced by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) that struck down a provision allowing states to accredit colleges; the amendment also further eased college-tuition reporting requirements.

The changes prompted the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which fought aggressively against the measure, to drop its opposition.

“From NAICU’s perspective, the bill that emerged from the House was much improved over the version first presented,” NAICU President David L. Warren stated in a press release. “Although the changes made in [the bill] still did not bring us to a position of being able to support the measure, these changes do represent substantial progress.”

NAICU agreed to go along with the package because Republicans kept their promises to water down a provision requiring colleges to create panels made of administrators, students, professors, alumni and others to explore operating costs, according to Sarah A. Flanagan, the association’s vice president.

The final version of the bill lowered the number of colleges required to form such committees from the top 10 percent of colleges that are deemed to have raised their tuitions excessively over a three-year period to the top 5 percent.

However, not all groups were swayed by the changes.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers indicated that, although the group’s voice had been heard, lawmakers did not do enough to earn the group’s support of the measure.

McKeon said that the criticism was unfair because the bill, even after the changes, includes provisions requiring more reporting on fees, which would make it easier to analyze what components of college costs could be reduced.

“Expanding college access remains a fundamental goal for this nation and this Congress,” McKeon stated in a press release. “Part of this effort is adding more sunlight into the discussion about higher education — and the rising costs of a college education, in particular. This bill adds that necessary sunlight, and it will make a difference for countless students.”