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College Access Bill Gets Thumbs Down From Lobbyists

College Access Bill Gets Thumbs Down From Lobbyists
By Charles Pekow

Would the College Access and Opportunity Act actually increase college access and opportunity? Higher education lobbyists are largely expressing disappointment with the bill that emerged earlier this summer from the House Education and the Workforce Committee and are hoping to change it on the House floor, in the Senate or in conference.

House bill managers say they plan to bring the bill to the floor sometime in September. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions also plans to mark up its own version in September.
“The whole premise of the bill is to create greater access to higher education. I don’t see that happening in this particular bill,” says Gabriella Gomez, higher education lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 150,000 higher education professionals, mainly at two-year schools.

“Pell Grants are not increased nearly as much as we would like,” Gomez says. The increase to $6,000 “chips away at it but it does not acknowledge there are greater needs for greater numbers of people going into higher education.” But she added that the bill’s “year-round Pell Grants are a good start. I am just not as encouraged because the whole package is not there.” She also praised the bill’s increased loan forgiveness for teachers and other professionals.

But AFT also opposes the bill’s Academic Bill of Rights, designed to prevent discrimination against students for expressing political opinions. A national voluntary code opens the door for government infringement on academic freedom, Gomez warns.

In addition, AFT is concerned that the bill would allow more aid to students attending for-profit schools without adequate oversight. “They have salespeople sign up homeless people who never attend college” to get tuition, says AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz.

But not everybody thinks that for-profits should be treated differently from public and nonprofit institutions. The money doesn’t go directly to them, “it just gives the students who are choosing to go to our colleges the option to receive tuition assistance,” notes Ellen Hollander, president of the Association of Proprietary Colleges, which represents for-profit higher education schools in New York state. “We were very happy that the House version did include a change that would include us. We think it is something that is long overdue,” Hollander says.
As to tuition abuses, New York state supervises for-profits, which the schools welcome, she says. “We would welcome more enforcement, more supervision.” The problem with the bill is that it doesn’t go far enough by letting for-profits in on all programs, Hollander adds.

That issue aside, other lobbyists are attacking the bill. The mandatory 1 percent guarantee fee student borrowers would have to pay will make college more expensive, says Jasmine Harris, legislative director for the United States Student Association. One percent may not sound like much, but the interest compounds.

On the other hand, USSA likes provisions that would increase the income allowances, though it only goes about half as far as the association would like. “But the benefits do not outweigh the cons, and that’s where we are,” Harris says.

The provision that would require that the 25 percent of schools with the highest consistent tuition increases create Quality-Efficiency Task Forces to examine how to cut costs “adds burdens to our colleges without commensurate benefits,” says David Baime, vice president for government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “We don’t think the solution is to call in outsiders to be involved in this issue. … We think the whole concept of a report outlining ways in which they shall reduce their tuition based on an arbitrary congressional definition is a bad approach.”

AACC is also hoping the Senate bill will include President Bush’s proposed Community College Initiative, which the House committee ignored.

Meanwhile, a wide spectrum of groups and organizations, including student governments, civil rights groups and health care associations, have joined the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform to combat the current provision denying financial aid to anyone with a drug conviction.
The House bill would adjust the law — allowing many with prior drug convictions to receive aid but still denying it to those convicted of drug offenses while in school. The measure would mainly help nontraditional students.

But the drug conviction question will remain on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which could scare a lot of students off if they don’t know the details, warns coalition campaign director Chris Mulligan. “Someone is still going to see the question and think ‘I’m still not eligible for financial aid,’” Mulligan says.

“We think the government should be providing more carrots and encouraging kids not to use drugs. Keeping someone in school is probably the best way to keep kids off drugs,” Mulligan says. “The ironic thing that will happen now is that the former trafficker convicted of trafficking hundreds of pounds across state lines decades ago will be helped, but the traditional college students won’t be.”

Last April, in preparation for the mark-up, the House committee took testimony from two economics professors presenting opposing views at a hearing entitled “College Access: Is Government Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?” One of the professors, Dr. Donald E. Heller of Pennsylvania State University, testified in favor of government programs to help low-income students with educational costs. The other, Dr. Richard Vedder of Ohio University, suggested that the federal spending on education was backfiring and driving up costs.

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