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Approved HEA Bill Offers More Aid for Low-income Students

Reauthorized Higher Education Act includes new funding for graduate programs at minority-serving institutions.

After years of debate, Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill to renew the Higher Education Act and made changes in a variety of programs, from Pell Grants and student loans to those reserved for minority-serving institutions. The affirmative vote on what is now called the Higher Education Opportunity Act sends the measure to the White House for President Bush’s signature. While administration officials say they object to some provisions of the plan, the president is expected to sign the bill. House and Senate negotiators met for months to resolve final details of the HEA reauthorization bill, which had stalled in Congress in recent years. But the final measure — more than 1,000 pages — is drawing bipartisan support. “It puts smart strategies in place to improve our student aid process, restore confidence in our student loan programs and provide more low-income, first-generation and minority students the chance to pursue a college education,” says Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness. For needy students, the bill would increase the maximum Pell Grant from $4,800 to $6,000 in 2009 and $8,000 by 2014, a House summary of the plan states. These low-income students could receive Pell Grants on a year-round basis. Despite these provisions, Congress would have to set annual appropriations to support these goals. Another provision creates the Grants for Access and Persistence (GAP) program, a new matching grant program to help states increase their own need-based aid to students. For minority-serving colleges and universities, the bill includes a much-discussed plan to provide new federal grants to address the digital divide at these institutions. The U.S. Department of Commerce would administer this program, says Edith Bartley, government affairs director at the United Negro College Fund. While earlier versions of the bill had proposed $250 million annually for this initiative, the final agreement does not set a recommended funding level. But the program would be open to HBCUs, Hispanicserving institutions and tribal colleges to address technology issues. Among other purposes, grantees could use funds to develop distance learning and other technology education services, provide professional development to faculty, partner with other MSIs on technology issues and use technology to enhance math, science and engineering research. “This is great news for our minorityserving institutions,” says Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., a Congressional Black Caucus member who has co-sponsored the legislation for the past six years. “This bill establishes an important foundation in closing the digital divide and ensuring equal opportunity for all students.” Lawmakers also created a new budget line item for many graduate programs not currently covered under the Title III program for historically Black colleges and universities. A new program under Title VII of the act would fund graduate programs at predominantly Black institutions (PBIs) as well as master’s level programs at some HBCUs. The existing Title III graduate program mainly serves HBCUs with professional and doctoral programs. “We want to see these programs expand,” says Bartley, noting that members of both chambers sought a solution to the postbaccalaureate issue that served all parties. “Members came to an agreement that would best fit the community,” she adds. Eighteen historically Black colleges and universities and five predominantly Black institutions eligible to receive funds under these new initiatives include Albany State University (Ga.), Coppin State University (Md.) and Chicago State University. To fully fund the program, Congress would need to set aside at least $11.5 million a year. Hispanic-serving institutions also would receive new federal funding for graduate programs. “After 10 years of waiting, Hispanic- serving institutions will have support for graduate programs leading to master’s and doctoral degrees,” Hinojosa says. For HBCUs, the bill would also increase the authorization of the main federal Title III program to $375 million a year. However, the House has proposed an appropriation of $323 million for next year, while the Senate is much lower at $238 million. While the authorization level is not binding, it is an important indicator of congressional intent. “This $375 million sets the stage for us to go back and use it as a marker to get funding increases in the future,” Bartley says. Other provisions of the massive HEA bill would: • Streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, including a two-page FAFSA-EZ for low-income families; • Give students advance information on textbook pricing to help them plan expenses; and • Require colleges to explain why they are increasing tuition. On student loans, colleges, universities and loan companies would have to adopt strict codes of conduct. Colleges that identify “preferred lenders” must have at least three lenders on their lists, and they must clearly explain why they believe these lenders are offering attractive terms and conditions. The bill would also expand required activities in TRIO college-access programs, with one special focus on improving student financial and economic literacy. Another provision would require the secretary of education to measure the quality and effectiveness of TRIO programs in a more rigorous manner, which would include a comprehensive evaluation of Upward Bound in 2010. Congress last reauthorized the entire HEA in 1998. “It’s been 10 years and very much needed,” Bartley says of the House/Senate agreement. “We’re thrilled.”

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