Republicans’ HEA Bill Prompts Rebukes From Democrats, Educators
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have proposed legislation which they say would expand access to higher education for more low- and middle-income students by strengthening Pell Grants, reducing loan costs and fees, and breaking down barriers for non-traditional students — but some critics say it’s not sound policy.
Introduced by House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness, the College Access and Opportunity Act would wrap up renewal of the Higher Education Act on the House side, according to Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
The bill calls for extra Pell Grant aid for low-income first- and second-year students who have completed a rigorous high-school curriculum through the State Scholars Program, and for making Pell Grants available year-round.
The measure also seeks to simplify the financial aid process for low-income students and would increase the amount a dependent student can earn — letting students earn more money without sacrificing financial aid.
Loan limits for first- and second-year students would be bumped up to “give students greater access to loans at the lowest possible interest rates,” according to a statement summarizing the initiative. First-year student limits would increase to $3,500 from $2,625, while second-year limits would rise to $4,500 from $3,500. Total borrowing limits for undergraduates would stay at $23,000, and graduate unsubsidized loans would climb to $12,000 from $10,000.
“The bill will ensure all federal student loans are based on a variable-rate to ensure all students and borrowers can take advantage of low, market-based interest rates,” according to the summary.
Students and parents would be informed about excessive tuition hikes by publicly identifying schools that increase tuition and fees at more than twice the rate of inflation during a three-year interval, according to the measure.
Under the College Access and Opportunity Act, all eligible schools would be allowed to compete for federal funding.
“The bill will update technical legal definitions within the Higher Education Act to allow all eligible institutions to compete for available funding as long as they are two-year degree-granting institutions,” according to the bill summary. “Proprietary schools competing for and receiving grants as a result of this provision will be required to use the funds solely for student-related services.”
McKeon said the bill is the result of an ongoing effort to create policy that does the most good for the most students.
“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.
But not everyone sees it the way McKeon does.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said the bill would threaten college access for millions.
“The Republican proposal redefines what a higher-education institution is, allowing for-profit entities to have access to scarce federal funding,” McCollum said. “As a result, funding that has long been reserved for community colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and other minority-serving institutions will be reduced.”
Dr. Philip Day, chancellor of City College of San Francisco, said he doesn’t support the bill as it stands. Allowing proprietary for-profit schools access to federal aid, Day agreed, would divert aid from community colleges and students who need it most.
“It’s insanity,” Day said. “Why should we as taxpayers help them get a better bottom line?”
Although the bill calls for more support for federal college access programs like TRIO and GEAR UP and for minority-serving institutions, McCollum said the measure falls short on all these fronts. She added that the measure doesn’t provide the necessary increases to TRIO and GEAR UP, and that it fails to increase the Pell Grant for all eligible students.
But Marrero had a different take.
“The Pell Grant program really is the foundation for need-based financial need. The program plays an important role in increasing access,” Marrero said. “Questions of it (Pell) going up is an appropriations question.”
Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said it’s impossible for ACE to support the bill without addressing its concerns, which include some of the accreditation provisions.
“The bill would exponentially increase the reporting colleges have to do,” Timmons said. “It takes time. It takes people. Compliance costs can be extraordinary.”
At the same time, Timmons said the bill has some selling points, such as the reduction in loan origination fees. The bill calls for the gradual reduction in loan origination fees, eventually paring down the fees to one percent.
“We’ve been eager to get rid of those origination fees,” Timmons said. “We’re eager to keep things moving forward.”
— By Patricia Troumpoucis
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