House Approves Update to Higher Ed Bill

House Approves Update to Higher Ed Bill

WASHINGTON

      Finding the best way to pay for college a struggle for many families has become a hassle for U.S. House of Representative lawmakers, too.

      The House last week approved a college affordability measure, but only after a partisan fight about whether the bill would help students.

      The result was an unusually divisive update to the Higher Education Act, the law aimed at making a college education more affordable. The focus now turns to the Senate, which is working on its own legislation.

      The House approved its bill 221-199, in a near party-line vote.

      For consumers, the bill would make it simpler to apply for federal aid, and put pressure on colleges that repeatedly increase tuition.

      It also would require schools to provide information about their costs to the U.S. Department of Education, to be posted on its Web site.

      But Democrats and Republicans could not agree on the core point of the new bill; how the federal government should help people deal with rising tuition.

      The election-year sniping continued after the final vote.

      House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the bill a “sham that does not help American students and families.” House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Democrats helped shape the bill and then walked away from it, which he called “reprehensible.”

      Most Democrats objected after failing with their own version, which would have cut in half the interest rate on student loans this July.

      Republican leaders said forcing colleges to be more accountable for costs will help families. They also touted an increase in the maximum Pell Grant, although Congress rarely approaches that limit when it appropriates money for the grants.

      Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., said the Democrats offered no way to pay for their proposal to cut interest rates significantly.

      “Why not interest-free loans?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s crazy.”

      Democrats spent much of their time discussing a bill that Congress passed two months ago, a deficit-cutting measure that slashed almost $13 billion in student loan aid. Democrats say GOP leaders only want to pay for tax cuts, at the expense of critical student aid.

      “This is a down payment on reversing the raid on student aid,” Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., said about the Democrats’ version of the bill before it was rejected.

      The education law is getting its first update since 1998. It hasn’t been easy. The House bill took three years to reach the floor.

      It would require colleges that increase tuition at more than twice the rate of inflation over three years to have to explain why. The House softened parts of that requirement to get the bill passed.

      “Parents and students, as consumers, deserve the opportunity to understand why tuition is increasing at their universities,” said Rep Mike Castle, R-Del. “As educated consumers, it is my hope they will in turn have the power to demand more, to demand answers.”

      The House also softened language telling colleges when they can deny academic credit for transfer students. Instead, the bill now would require colleges to have transfer policies that are publicly disclosed.

      Lawmakers rejected an amendment by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to make colleges report how race is considered in their student admissions.

      As the debate unfolded, the major lobbying voice for private colleges withdrew its opposition to the bill.

      The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities said the bill was changed enough to remove its two big concerns; federal government control over how much a private college can charge, and potential state control over a school’s curriculum.

— Associated Press



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