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Congress returns to work this month facing a litany of major
education issues affecting African Americans and other students of

After a year of public hearings and draft proposals, the House and
Senate will tackle the nuts-and-bolts work of reauthorizing the Higher
Education Act (HEA) this year. HEA is the major federal law governing
aid to colleges and universities.

Since 1998 is an election year, the House may finish its committee
work by summer with hopes of moving legislation to the floor well
before any expected adjournment dates. Here is a quick update on key
HEA topics:

* Student aid: Countless ideas abound, from so-called “super” Pell
Grants for the neediest students to expansion of the maximum grant and
more aid to independent students. One plan that is getting high marks
is Rep. Chaka Fattah’s (D-Pa.) proposal to give at-risk, disadvantaged
youth early information about the type of federal aid available for
college. The Education Department has expressed support for this

* TRIO: This program to recruit disadvantaged students for college
and provide them with vital support services may hit its political
stride this year. Education advocates long have supported such efforts,
and conservatives praised the concept in discussions with President
Bill Clinton on ways to find common ground on racial issues. HEA
reauthorization and the president’s ongoing Initiative on Race may give
the program more national attention in 1998.

* Title III: The program, that includes aid to historically Black
colleges and universities (HBCUs), enjoys substantial support on
Capitol Hill. But a proposed expansion of the program may prove tricky.
Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) and tribal colleges both want
separate Title III authorizations, and HSIs also are seeking changes in
how the government classifies a Hispanic institution. Expanded Title
III funding also is on the agenda for all groups.

* Default exemption: HBCUs and tribal colleges currently have an
exemption from federal loan-default sanctions, but that exemption
expires July 1. Without an extension, many institutions enrolling
low-income students may find themselves at risk of losing access to
federal grant and loan programs.

* Campus security: Viewed by many as a sleeper issue, this could
emerge as one topic that helps delay the HEA process. Safety advocates
have proposed sweeping legislation to impose new rules and regulations
on colleges at the same time institutions and lawmakers are talking
about relief from intrusive federal rules in many areas. Under one
proposed bill, colleges of all sizes would have to maintain detailed
crime logs and open campus disciplinary systems to greater public
scrutiny. This latter provision would require a rewrite of federal
privacy law.

HEA is not the only topic on the Congressional agenda. One issue
that will come up early in 1998 is Senate action on the nomination of
David Satcher, M.D., as U.S. surgeon general. If confirmed, the former
president of Meharry Medical College would assume a post left vacant
since the middle of Clinton’s first term.

Clinton’s first surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, M.D., resigned
under controversy about her remarks on sexuality; and the last surgeon
general nominee, obstetrician Henry Foster, M.D., faced a firestorm of
criticism after acknowledging that he performed several abortions.

Most analysts believe Satcher will win approval when the Senate
reconvenes in late January. The first African American to earn an M.D.
and Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University, Satcher sailed through a
confirmation hearing last fall.

Congress also will receive the final report of a national
commission charged with evaluating college costs. The job of this
congressionally mandated panel is to find answers to the high cost of

However, it came under heavy criticism last fall after draft
findings called college a relative bargain compared to the quality of
education received. Amid such criticism, the commission backed away
from its original plans to issue a report last December.

The future of vocational education (voc-ed) also remains on the
congressional plate after lawmakers again failed to approve a long-term
extension of the Carl Perkins Act last year. This extension faces
continued problems because some Republicans still want to include
voc-ed in a broad consolidation of federal job-training programs.

A major consolidation bill failed in 1996, but the Senate proposed
a scaled back version last year. The House now favors retaining the
Perkins Act as a separate federal program.

Expect lawmakers also to turn their attention to the government’s
1999 budget by summer. The current fiscal year ends September 30, and
Congress generally begins work on new spending bills as early as
spring. Once Clinton submits his 1999 budget, Congress will hold
hearings and then mark up fiscal 1999 spending bills, including one for
elementary, secondary, and higher education.

President Offers Support For Affirmative Action

President Bill Clinton mounted a vigorous defense of affirmative
action in higher education late last month, calling it important for
all students, regardless of race.

“The whole premise on which affirmative action is being attacked is
that there really is a totally objective, realistic way you can predict
success in college … based on your high school grades and your SAT
scores,” he said before adding that SAT scores are not a perfect
predictor of success and public schools are vastly different from each

“If you forget about race altogether,” Clinton said, “grading
systems in some high schools are very different from others, and work
done in some schools at the same period of time is different from that
in others.”

Such disparities can justify the use of alternative criteria, and
past history has shown that many admitted under such policies can make
“a huge leap in college,” Clinton said.

The president made the comments at a news conference in response to
a question about public perception of the affirmative action issue. The
president also met with affirmative action critics last month in an
effort to seek some common ground on the issue.

Americans are divided on the issue, the president acknowledged, but
he praised a decision by Houston voters to support affirmative action
in a recent ballot initiative that produced different results than
those in California and elsewhere.

“The pro-affirmative action position won, I think, in no small
measure because it was a city where people knew each other,” Clinton
said, adding that ongoing discussions, rather than political slogans,
helped voters develop a greater understanding of these programs.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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