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HEA Renewal Approved, With Some Surprising New Policies

Provisions of the Higher Education Act renewal approved by a House committee on Thursday includes year-round Pell Grants allowing students flexibility in enrollment schedules, a requirement that colleges report their reasons for increasing tuition for students and creation of an international education czar at the U.S. Department of Education.

After two grueling days of work, a House of Representatives committee on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to renew the Higher Education Act for five years and add new provisions to improve college access and success.

“It will help close the college access and completion gaps for low-income and minority students; improve the financial aid application and delivery system; and improve preparation so that low-income and first-generation college students are ready to succeed in college – academically, financially, and socially,” said U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, who chairs the House higher education subcommittee.

Called the College Opportunity and Affordability Act, the bill drew bipartisan support as it cleared the House Education and Labor Committee. The next stop is the House floor.

The bill is a companion to the College Cost Reduction Act, which provided $18 billion in new financial aid and was signed into law earlier this fall. The new bill covers the many provisions of HEA not affected by the Cost Reduction Act.

Proposed by Hinojosa and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, the College Opportunity and Affordability Act would increase the funding ceiling for campus-based financial aid programs such as supplemental grants to needy students. For Black colleges, the bill would add more institutions to the list eligible for federal grants to HBCU graduate schools.

Overall, the bill would authorize another $200 million for supplemental grants and increase the program’s allowance for books and supplies. Up to $150 million in additional funding could become available for Title III HEA programs.

Other elements of the plan would:

  • Authorize year-round Pell Grants, which, sponsors say, may help low-income students seeking more flexible college schedules;
  • Provide up to $10,000 in new loan forgiveness for educators and others in public service;
  • Require student loan companies to adopt strict codes of conduct;
  • Clarify language on minimum grants and prior experience within TRIO programs;
  • Provide grants to promote participation of low-income and minority students in science,
  • technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers;
  • Authorize grants to promote student access and persistence;
  • Create a national center to support best practices in working with disabled college students;
  • Require colleges to develop campus safety and disaster preparedness plans, in response to incidents such as the shootings at Virginia Tech.

Hinojosa said the plan would make “strategic” investments to increase access. “Our nation will depend on the next generation of students – over 40 percent of whom are minorities – to fuel our increasingly high-tech economy.”

One unusual provision in the bill would require colleges to report their reasons for increasing tuition for students. Institutions also would have to report publicly about how they plan to lower their costs.

Miller, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said the bill would help students with obstacles to college attendance: “skyrocketing college prices, an absurdly confusing financial aid application; and a student loan industry overrun with conflicts of interest.”

During a lengthy session Wednesday that continued on Thursday morning, committee members debated more than 30 amendments to the bill on issues such as accreditation, audits and other topics. Among the amendments winning support was one to create the post of assistant secretary for international education at the U.S. Department of Education.

–Associated Press

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