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College Access and Opportunity Bill Passes House Committee

College Access and Opportunity Bill Passes House Committee
By Charles Pekow

College would become more affordable for specific groups under amendments to the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill being readied for House consideration this fall. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved the College Access and Opportunity Act with a number of additions to the version approved in subcommittee earlier this month.

The committee passed the bill on a party-line vote of 27-20, with no Democrats supporting it. It approved a number of Republican-sponsored amendments but blocked Democrats’ initiatives to increase student aid, including a provision to increase Pell Grants by $500 a year.

Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement saying, “We’re providing meaningful reforms that will expand college access, prioritize the needs of students and protect American taxpayers.”
But ranking minority member George Miller, D-Calif., offers a very different interpretation.

“To make up for Republican mismanagement of the federal budget, the committee bill forces students to give up $11 billion worth of financial aid to help reduce the massive federal budget deficit,” he says. “This bill treats students as if they are responsible for Republican fiscal mismanagement.”

Though committee members failed to add a proposed amendment that would forbid colleges from refusing outright to accept community college credits, the bill would require colleges to stick to and publicize a credit-transfer policy.

The bill would also authorize year-round Pell Grants, as the subcommittee version allowed. However, a clause added in the full committee would permit the year-round grants for students at two-year colleges only if the school has an above-average graduation rate during at least one of the last three years for which the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems survey program contains figures.

The bill would modify and add many other provisions pertaining to student aid, including the following:

– Ten percent of TRIO funding would be reserved for novice
applicants. “The current process puts such a large amount of weight on grantees previously involved that it’s hard for new institutions to get in, no matter how needy the students,” committee spokeswoman Alexa Marrero says. The Department of Education would also have to develop performance measures for TRIO.

– The rule requiring proprietary schools to get at least 10
percent of their funding from sources other than federal student aid would apply to all schools. For-profit schools would also be treated the same as other colleges as far as eligibility of programs under the Higher Education Act. And schools with default rates below 10 percent for three consecutive years could get waivers from some rules, including a prohibition on loans to first-year students taking out their first loan.

– A technical short-term minor noncompliance would no longer automatically disqualify students. “While noncompliance with this rule is rare, the consequences of the rule are imposed most harshly on students with financial need — even a fraction of a percentage outside this ratio results in immediate loss of federal aid for
students,” the committee says.

– The 50 percent cap on distance education would be removed, so schools could provide more education via the Internet. Also, a new provision would clarify that colleges could enroll home-schooled students without losing eligibility for aid programs.

– The Education Department would be charged with redesigning its College Opportunities Online Web site to provide
more information on schools, including their mission, student demographics, accreditation, student-faculty ratios, faculty qualifications, costs, student services, credit transfer policies, graduation rates and placement rates.

– More college graduates could get loan forgiveness. The maximum relief, specifically for those who teach pre-collegiate math, science and special education in high-need areas for five years, would rise from $5,000 under current law to $17,500. Nurses, librarians and child-care workers would now get up to $5,000 in loan relief.

As far as student financial aid is concerned, the new bill forbids schools from lending money to students and allows student borrowers with consolidation loans to choose between variable and fixed interest rates, with a cap of 8.25 percent on all loans.

Active-duty military personnel could get interest payments on Stafford Loans deferred as well under the bill.

A law that prohibits students with drug convictions from receiving student aid would include language that clarifies that it applies only to those convicted while in school — not those with previous convictions.
l Schools that increase tuition and fees by more than twice the rate of inflation over three years would be publicly identified and have to explain why and what they plan to do to keep costs down in the future.
l The bill also calls on the Education Department to report on “older adult learners” in college and how well schools are addressing their needs, including outreach, accessibility (including distance education) and financing.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings issued a ringing endorsement of the legislation, saying, “This bill takes an important step toward realizing the opportunity-filled future President Bush envisions for all Americans. If approved by the full House, the law would make it
easier for students to attend college, families to afford college and teachers to pay back college loans. By meeting deficit reduction targets, it also keeps the president’s promise to spend the taxpayers’ money wisely.”

And while the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hasn’t yet officially drafted a bill, Senators recently introduced ideas that they intend to put in the Senate version to assist students.
Senators are working in a more bipartisan fashion than the House committee members. Committee members Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, introduced the Improving Access to Education for Students Who Are Homeless or in Foster Care Act, which would authorize $20 million in grants to help “highly mobile” students prepare for college.

Finally, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., asked the committee to consider his Improving Educational Opportunities for All Act as part of the reauthorization package. The act would expand eligibility for Title V grants to more Hispanic-serving institutions, replacing the 50 percent low-income Hispanic student requirement with a 50 percent overall low-income requirement. The bill would also knock out the rule that says no school could get a Title V grant until two years after its previous one expires.

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