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The Year Ahead on Capitol Hill

The Year Ahead on Capitol Hill
Higher education advocates hope Congress will address Pell Grant increases, textbook costs and other priorities before the fall presidential campaign.
By Charles Dervarics

With a presidential election on the horizon, 2008 on Capitol Hill is shaping up as a year for quick action on budget, student aid and other education bills before the fall campaign takes the national spotlight, advocates say.

“The battles are going to start in January,” says Carmen Berkley, vice president of the United States Student Association. Topping the list is funding for the current and the next federal fiscal years. After using his veto pen to help rein in federal spending last fall, President Bush gets another chance in early February when he will present his 2009 education budget.

USSA is seeking long-range increases in the Pell Grant to $9,000 a year for needy students, about double its current amount, Berkley says. Increases in college work/study, GEAR UP and college-access programs also are on the group’s agenda.

But the budget is not the only issue on the minds of education advocates, who cited these topics in their 2008 agendas:

Textbook costs: Large increases and high costs make it difficult for many needy students to afford the ongoing costs of college. For community college students, textbooks can account for 40 percent of total attendance cost, says Luke Swarthout, higher education advocate at U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

A bipartisan House bill on the Higher Education Act (HEA) has language requiring more disclosure from publishers about textbook prices. “Faculty are the point of sale for textbooks,” he says, but publishers often hide the prices from them.

Other bill language would discourage the bundling of textbooks with CD-ROMs, study guides and other add-ons that drive up costs. “We need to help the market work more efficiently,” Swarthout says.

HEA action: “HEA has not been reauthorized in 10 years,” Berkley says. But some see hope, since the House and Senate have discussed bills with bipartisan support.

Progress has slowed in part because Congress was taking up renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, Swarthout says. But there is positive momentum. “HEA is not a ghost ship,” he says.

For U.S. PIRG, one priority in the HEA bill is stronger language on student loans to protect students and stop unnecessary borrowing, particularly through high-cost private loans when they still may be able to borrow through federally subsidized programs. “Students need to be aware of their federal options,” Swarthout says.

At the Council for Opportunity in Education, one priority on HEA is to “close the books” on controversial Education Department plans regarding Upward Bound, says Susan Trebach, a COE spokeswoman.

The Bush administration has introduced rules requiring Upward Bound programs to enroll younger students and focus on those failing No Child Left Behind assessments. Another rule would require grantees to enroll more students than necessary and then provide no services to some youth as part of an experimental evaluation. Advocates oppose all these moves, saying they would undermine flexibility as well as local support for such programs.

Congress has expressed opposition to these plans, but the issue is still not resolved. HEA should also clarify and reaffirm low-income students’ rights to access and retention services, she says. COE also wants to expand services to veterans through the Veterans Upward Bound Program.

Financial aid forms: Many groups continue to ask Congress to eliminate a policy that denies federal student aid to college students with drug convictions. On the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, students must answer whether they have had a conviction. Students face loss of aid if they answer “yes” or leave the question blank.

“We’re getting mixed signals from a lot of people,” says Tom Angell, government relations director at Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). The Senate’s original HEA bill eliminated the policy, but that language never made it to the floor. The House ignored the issue except for two minor changes, he says. One would restore a student’s eligibility if he or she passes two unannounced drug tests, and another provision would require colleges to tell new students about the rule.

These are “tiny steps” in the right direction, Angell tells Diverse, although SSDP and groups such as the NAACP and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education are seeking full repeal of the penalty. “It’s a disconcerting situation,” he adds.

Election 2008: For many student groups, planning for the November election may be 2008’s biggest priority. “Students have to get out and vote,” Berkley says.

With presidential primary campaigns in full swing, USSA is organizing student voter recruitment and turnout efforts in at least 10 states, Berkley says. Among the top priorities are California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The association also hopes to prod the presidential candidates to talk more about education priorities. “Education needs to be a major issue,” Berkley says. “I don’t think we’re hearing enough from them on education.”

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