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House Votes to Reauthorize Higher Education Act

House Votes to Reauthorize Higher Education Act
Party-line vote rejects several Democratic provisions to sharply contested bill

By David Pluviose

After years of partisan bickering, the House of Representatives has passed a measure reauthorizing the Higher Education Act for six years on a 221-199 near-party line vote. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration. While criticizing Democrat dissent over the bill, Republicans praised the measure, saying it strengthens the Pell Grant program, expands the Perkins student loan program, increases funding for minority-serving institutions and reauthorizes federal college access programs.

“We’ve provided a plan that expands the Pell Grant program for low-income students, provides parents and students with better information on college costs, simplifies the financial aid process, improves teacher training and strengthens institutions serving minorities,” says House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “Unfortunately, the Democrats chose to play partisan games with this important issue by going back on good-faith negotiations that took place in recent weeks.”

Democrats blasted the bill for not doing enough to help student borrowers. An amendment by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that would have reduced interest rates on subsidized student loans was voted down.

“Earlier this year, the Republicans cut $12 billion from the federal student aid programs in the largest raid on aid in history,” says Miller. “Americans need help paying for college, but they’re not getting any from this Congress.”

As it stands, the bill passed by the Republican majority in the House reauthorizes the Perkins Loan program — boosting loan limits from $4,000 to $5,500 for undergraduates and from $6,000 to $8,000 for graduate students — and allowing students to borrow at a 5 percent fixed interest rate. It also raises the maximum Pell Grant by $200 to $6,000, although that is essentially an empty number, because Congress rarely, if ever, appropriates the maximum amount. Pell Grants have been frozen at $4,050 for several years. The reauthorization also provides Pell Grant aid for students who attend college  year-round.

House Republicans also touted the elimination of the “single-holder rule,” which forced students to consolidate loans with their original lender. The bill also mandates that colleges and universities disclose their credit transfer policies. And higher education institutions that increase tuition and fees at more than twice the rate of inflation over a three-year period will be publicly identified and have to explain the reason for the increases.

The HEA also contains an academic “bill of rights” to discourage colleges from discriminating against students based on political ideology. In a possible attempt to distance themselves from President Bush during a contentious mid-term election year, Republican leaders chose not to implement several of the cuts Bush proposed in his budget for the 2007 fiscal year.

“I have problems with the President’s budget, in a lot of different ways, but the president’s budget is a proposal; the Congress decides how we appropriate the funds,” says Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. Wilson has sponsored a proposal that would, among other things, provide federal funding for graduate programs at Hispanic-serving institutions.

“The Hispanic-serving institution grant program has worked very well to encourage kids to go to college and to graduate and finish their undergraduate degrees,” Wilson says. “But even in universities with a high percentage of Hispanic undergraduates, there is a big
drop-off for graduate school.”

Wilson and Dr. Gumecindo Salas, vice president of legislative affairs for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, say despite bickering over the broader HEA measure, a commitment to increasing HSI funding helped develop bipartisan harmony.

“Hispanics are the least represented [group] in higher education. The Hispanic community is the fastest-growing minority community in the country, and Hispanic colleges have been shortchanged for the past 20 years,” Salas says. “There was nothing divisive in that both parties agreed that HSIs need more money for graduate programs.”

Miller’s failed amendment also proposed establishing a new program to boost the college participation rates of low-income Black students at historically Black colleges and universities. The amendment also would have raisedthe tribal college minimum grant to $500,000 and stabilized tribal college construction by guaranteeing that construction funds would be covered under HEA. 

In response to the defeat of his measure, Miller and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced separate legislation dubbed the “Reverse the Raid on Student Aid Act of 2006.” The bill would implement the subsidized loan interest rate cut which was voted down in the House HEA reauthorization.

“This decision by the Bush administration and the Republican Congress means that the cost of college students’ interest rate is going to go up by 20-25 percent during the life of the loan,” Durbin says. “These kids, saddled with debt anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 or more, make decisions on what they’ll do with their lives based on their student loan payments.

“So I think if we are committed to our students and future generations, in giving them the options they need to make this a better nation, we need to undo the harm that’s been done by this bill,” he says.

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