On the Road to Reauthorization
With the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization, the fate of student aid and
the future of colleges’ regulatory independence is uncertainAs Congress returns to work this month, it has plenty on its plate, but all eyes and hopes in higher education will be pinned on the reauthorization of the legislative behemoth known as the Higher Education Act.
Though the renewal of the act itself isn’t in doubt, educators are still waiting to see what the massive bill will contain. Will it give poor students more tuition help? Less? Will colleges soon find themselves scrambling to justify their costs and their graduation rates to government auditors? Decisions about these and other far-reaching policy questions will all be decided over the next few months.
The 1965 Higher Education Act is reauthorized every six years. During reauthorization, both houses of Congress hold hearings in Washington, inviting educators, advocacy groups and other policy analysts to examine the law and offer suggestions about what works, what doesn’t and — perhaps most importantly — what programs need more money.
After the House of Representatives and Senate draft legislation they can agree on, they send it to the president. Once the measure becomes law, the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for administering and enforcing it.
According to Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is overseeing reauthorization, the House has held 10 hearings so far, and plans to finish its work on the bill by the end of year. The chairman of the committee, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and one of the subcommittee chairmen, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., are two of the key players.
The Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in the Senate will probably do most of its work on the legislation in 2004, Marrero said, after which the two houses will meet in a conference committee to draft the final measure they send to President Bush.
Marrero said it’s important to remember that in terms of funding, the reauthorizing committees don’t control how much money a program ultimately gets; that’s up to the appropriations committees.
“Appropriators could go below suggested funding; it happens all the time. They are forced to appropriate whatever money is available,” she says. “It’s not a regular occurrence that an appropriation would be the same as an authorization level — it’s often lower.”
Money for higher education is earmarked in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill.It’s All About Access
As reauthorization takes shape on Capitol Hill, most agree that the ultimate goal is to increase access to higher education for disadvantaged students — particularly those from low-income families. The soaring cost of higher education is barring these students from pursuing college degrees, officials say, and the federal government should do something about it.
“Despite billions of dollars we’ve put into student-aid programs, low-income students still remain underrepresented in schools compared to middle- and upper-income students,” says Chris Simmons, assistant director of government relations at the American Council on Education (ACE).
Simmons said community colleges are vital to these discussions on access, because they enroll a majority of the low-income students and can speak knowledgeably of their plight.
According to a report by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, an independent group commissioned by Congress to study financial aid, 168,000 low- and moderate-income high-school graduates who qualified for some form of postsecondary education couldn’t afford to attend any college in 2002. Financial constraints kept another 406,000 students from attending a four-year college. The report, “Empty Promises: The Myth of College Access in America,” also predicts that in the first decade of the 21st century, two million college-qualified students from low- and moderate-income families won’t be able to afford any college at all. By the end of the decade, the report says, a four-year college degree will be priced out of range for 4.4 million students.
“On average, annual unmet need for low-income families has reached $3,200 at two-year public colleges, $3,800 at public four-year public colleges, and $6,200 at four-year private colleges, which strongly discourages many high-school graduates from enrolling and persisting to degree completion,” according to the report.
So what can be done to brighten such a bleak forecast?
For starters, education officials say, the government must boost student-aid funds, specifically Pell Grants. The maximum Pell Grant award is currently $4,050, though the authorized level is $5,100, and about 4.4 million students currently receive the grants. In 2000-2001, 32 percent of all Pell recipients were enrolled at community colleges, according to a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Issues and Options.”
Pell’s purchasing power has diminished markedly since the 1970s, so it covers much less of a student’s education costs than it once did. In 1976-1977, according to the IHEP report, the Pell Grant covered 94 percent of the average annual price of attending a two-year public institution, 72 percent of the average annual price of attending a public four-year institution and 35 percent of the average annual price of attending a private four-year institution. But today the Pell Grant covers only 68 percent of the average annual price of attending a two-year institution, 34 percent of the average annual price of attending a public four-year institution and 13 percent of the average annual price of attending a private four-year institution.
To increase the Pell’s purchasing power, most education officials say the maximum award amount should be raised.
A coalition of more than 40 higher-education groups, including ACE and the American Association of Community Colleges, has suggested doubling the maximum appropriated Pell Grant within six years.
But Rep. McKeon said it’s unlikely Pell will even be funded at the currently authorized level of $5,100. He said it’s more important to offer more people a chance to participate in Pell than it is to offer a higher award to each Pell recipient.
“We’ve put more money into Pell even though we kept the award level the same — it gave a lot more people (the) opportunity to go to school. We see that as the federal role. … We want to help as many people as possible,” he said.
In addition to bumping up Pell funding, some say the money should be doled out differently.
One idea that is gaining momentum is “frontloading” — giving larger Pell awards to first- and second-year students — which can be accomplished in a number of ways. Some have suggested reserving Pell funds solely for first- and second-year students, instead of providing students with subsidized loans in their third and fourth years. Others say Pell money should be available to all students, but that most of it should go to first- and second-year students.
According to the IHEP report, there are both benefits and drawbacks to frontloading. It would help accomplish Pell’s original mission, the report says, which was to provide the neediest students with two years of free higher education. The report also says frontloading would help increase persistence rates, because most students who drop out of college do so within the first two years, often fearing high levels of debt.
On the other hand, it would be difficult to predict how many students would drop out if faced with having to borrow loans to obtain their bachelor’s degrees, according to the report. And, the report says, frontloading could encourage students to attend shorter programs.Whose Job Is It, Anyway?
Aside from the Pell Grant, the other HEA issue of concern for all of higher education is accountability. Specifically, educators are worried that federal funding for colleges, like funding for K-12 schools under President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, could be withheld if colleges don’t meet graduation-rate or other performance goals.
Some officials say the federal government shouldn’t impose regulations on colleges — particularly on community colleges, as students don’t always enroll at two-year colleges with the goal of graduating with an associate’s degree.
Dr. Philip Day, chancellor of the City College of San Francisco, said he opposes federal regulation because community colleges already answer to regional accrediting bodies.
“The community colleges have never been gun-shy on the issue of accountability and performance. We all go through in a six- or a 10-year cycle a very, very rigorous evaluation by our peers to ensure that we are doing the job we say we do. That’s called regional accreditation,” he said.
A similar procedure at the federal level would be superfluous, Day said.
Others say accountability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on what it entails.
Dr. Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, said it’s unrealistic to think that accountability won’t be part of the HEA review. And he thinks accountability itself isn’t such a bad idea — so long as it accounts for how different community colleges are from other institutions.
“Colleges should be pushed to improve their performances, and people should be able to judge them. But people should have a sophisticated understanding of what performance is,” Bailey said.
Nearly everyone who’s studied the issue agrees that some form of accountability requirements will probably be enacted as part of the reauthorization.
Given the soaring costs of higher education, lawmakers could even make affordability part of that accountability, says Dr. Thomas Wolanin, a senior associate at IHEP and the author of the institute’s reauthorization report. In fact, Rep. McKeon is working on just such an initiative.
McKeon said he’ll officially unveil his set of affordability proposals, known as “The Affordability in Higher Education Act,” as part of HEA’s review. One of the reforms would require higher-education institutions to report the annual costs of attendance to the Education Department. If costs surpass a certain level (twice the cost of living, as defined by the Consumer Price Index), the schools will be required to explain why, and how they plan to hold costs down in the future. If a school doesn’t cut back costs within a certain amount of time, it would face penalties. As a last resort, the government could cut the school from federal student-aid programs.
McKeon said schools must also do their part to keep costs down, and not put the whole burden on the government.
“In the time I’ve been chair of (sub)committee we’ve almost doubled it (overall Pell funding), $7 billion to about $12 billion. We increased the (individual) award from $2,000 to $4,050. … But if we don’t get some reforms and people don’t start doing their part to make things more affordable … we can’t keep looking to the federal government,” he said.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com