House Approves HEA Bill; Senate Vote Next

The House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill to renew the Higher Education Act and make changes in a variety of programs from Pell Grants and student loans to those for minority-serving institutions.

The 380-49 vote sends the Higher Education Opportunity Act, H.R. 4137, to the full Senate for expected approval. Assuming a favorable Senate vote, the measure then will go to President Bush for his signature.

House and Senate negotiators met for months to resolve final details of the HEA reauthorization bill, which had stalled in Congress in recent years. But the final measure is drawing bipartisan support.

“It puts smart strategies in place to improve our student aid process, restore confidence in our student loan programs and provide more low-income, first-generation and minority students the chance to pursue a college education,” said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Tex., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness.

For needy students, the bill would increase the maximum Pell Grant from $4,800 to $6,000 in 2009 and $8,000 by 2014, a House summary of the plan states. Low-income students also could receive Pell Grants on a year-round basis. Despite these provisions, Congress still would have to set annual appropriations to support these goals.

Another provision creates the Grants for Access and Persistence (GAP) program, a new matching grant program to help states increase their own need-based aid to students.

For minority-serving colleges and universities, the bill includes a much-discussed plan to provide new federal grants to address the digital divide at these institutions. The U.S. Department of Commerce would administer this program, said Edith Bartley, government affairs director at the United Negro College Fund.

While earlier versions of the bill had proposed $250 million annually for this initiative, the final agreement does not set a recommended funding level.

Another provision of the bill would create a new grant program for many graduate programs not currently covered under the Title III aid program for historically Black colleges and universities. A new program under Title VII of the act would fund graduate programs at predominantly Black institutions (PBIs) as well as master’s level programs at some HBCUs. The existing Title III graduate program mainly serves those HBCUs with professional and Ph.D. programs.

“We want to see these programs expand,” said Bartley, who noted members of both chambers sought a solution to the post-baccalaureate issue that served all parties. “Members came to an agreement that would best fit the community,” she added.

Five PBIs and 18 HBCUs would be eligible for this funding, which sets a minimum annual grant of $500,000.

Other provisions of the massive HEA bill would:

n      Require colleges and student loan companies to adopt strict codes of conduct;

n      Streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, including a two-page FAFSA-EZ for low-income families;

n      Give students advance information on textbook pricing to help them plan expenses; and

n      Provide support for graduate programs at Hispanic-serving institutions.

Congress last reauthorized the entire HEA in 1998. “It’s been 10 years and very much needed,” Bartley said of the House/Senate agreement. “We’re thrilled.”

The illness of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., contributed to delays this year, advocates noted. However, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., assumed many of Kennedy’s responsibilities in seeking resolution of key issues.

“This is a huge accomplishment,” Bartley said.

Despite the bill’s approval, the Title VII initiative still needs annual appropriations. “That’s step two,” Bartley said.

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