House Launches Update of Higher Education Law
The House began a push Wednesday to rein in college costs and make it easier for students to seek federal aid.
Critics of the measure have said that it would do little to help families directly, and Democrats complained that the debate was rushed and limited.
The broad renewal of the nation’s higher education law, the first one since 1998, was shaping up as an election-year fight. Congress typically updates the Higher Education Act every several years with little rancor, but this time, that bipartisan unity is gone.
The bill would raise the maximum Pell Grant, simplify the process of applying for federal aid and require the U.S. Department of Education to post information about colleges in a way that is easy to understand.
It would also set new restrictions on when colleges and universities can refuse to award academic credit to transfer students. Vocational colleges praise that idea, but universities say it would weaken their standards and force them to award credit when it is not deserved.
Overall, the Republican-led bill would expand the federal oversight of colleges and universities, particularly on matters of money.
By ordering schools that hike prices significantly to face federal scrutiny, bill sponsors hope to influence colleges’ tuition decisions. Any school that increases its tuition more than twice the rate of inflation over a three-year period would have to explain why.
“Colleges and universities must remain accountable to the consumers of higher education,” says Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.
Some college groups say the bill is in effect creating government “price controls,” a charge the bill’s sponsors deny.
Congress already renewed a significant chunk of the law in December, including student loans, as part of a broad budget bill.
That legislation cut almost $13 billion from the student loan program over five years, with the savings to go to deficit reduction.
Democrats are still fuming about that. They said the new bill doesn’t undo the damage or adequately increase basic college aid.
“We are missing a real opportunity to make college more affordable and accessible,” says Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich.
The House began considering 15 amendments Wednesday, far short of the more than 100 that had been requested this week. Republican leaders planned to allow a second round of amendments before debate ended.
A final vote on the bill was expected on Thursday.
Among other measures, the bill calls on colleges not to harass or intimidate students for speaking out about their political or religious beliefs.
The maximum Pell Grant, the government’s chief aid program for low-income students, would increase from $5,800 to $6,000. But for years, Congress has appropriated much less than allowed.
The current Pell Grant is $4,050. The bill would create a $1,000 Pell Grant bonus for first-year and second-year students who took rigorous high school courses.
Also, all colleges would be put under one definition of higher education, allowing for-profit schools to be eligible for some new aid.
First adopted in 1965, the higher education law aims to make college affordable for poor and middle-income families.
The House bill would update a range of programs, including teacher training, graduate study, foreign language programs and campus aid. Lawmakers and their aides have been working on the bill since 2003. House launches update of higher education law.
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