Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Higher Education Act compromise reached

Federal Higher Education Act compromise reached
After working on the reauthorization since 2003 with 13 extensions, U.S. lawmakers have finally reached agreement on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the bill that sets federal higher education policy every five years. The vote in conference committee last night was 18 to 3 on the Senate side, and 22 to 1 on the House side. The bill now heads to the House and Senate floors where it is expected to be taken up tomorrow.

The bill sets a ceiling on the maximum Pell Grant of $9,000, and allows students to receive Pell Grant funds year-round, instead of just during the traditional academic year. The bill also gives the U.S. Department of Education more authority to regulate private student loans and also bars the Department from issuing regulations governing higher education accreditation. The bill also addresses student downloading of movies and music.

There has been much discussion surrounding the issue of textbooks during negotiations. The final compromise mandates that textbook publishers expand the information they provide to faculty members about pricing and changes from past editions. The language also requires colleges to put information about required books in their course schedules to help students shop for books more cost effectively.

One of the most controversial provisions in the bill, that held up negotiations, but was included in the bill at the final hour, is the "maintenance of effort" amendment. The provision withholds College Access Challenge Grant funds from states that fail to raise spending on higher education each year by at least as much as they increased it, on average, over the previous five years. During debate on the amendment, Rep. John F. Tierney, D-Mass., argued that there is a "direct correlation" between state spending and college tuition rates. Opposition to the amendment include governors and state legislatures, who are concerned that states will be forced to hold down spending during good economic times to avoid being held to more generous levels when the economy worsens. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., argued that the federal government has no
business dictating how states spend their tax revenue.

There are also plenty of new reporting requirements in the bill, which colleges argue would increase their costs at the same time they are receiving pressure to keep tuition growth low. The bill includes language that requires the Secretary of Education to publish annual lists of the institutions with the highest and lowest tuition and fees, and net prices, by sector, as well as lists of the institutions with the largest percentage increases in net price and in tuition and fees over the previous three years. Institutions appearing on the lists would be required to report on the factors that contributed to their price increases and the steps they are taking to hold down costs.

Friday, July 11, 2008

U.S. Congress expected to adjourn early; budget work left to be done

U.S. Congress expected to adjourn early

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has agreed to the House target of adjourning Congress by Sept. 26, giving Congress only a little more than six weeks to finish business. Congress will recess for the month of August and if they stick to the target adjournment, will finish in September. Sen. Reid said his priorities for July includes passing a gas price bill, consumer product safety legislation, a measure addressing the spread of AIDS in Africa and legislation extending energy production tax incentives.

Democratic leaders have said they will likely delay final votes on appropriations bills until after the election at the earliest, but most likely after a new president is sworn into office in January. President Bush has said he will veto any bills over his spending limit, which is about $21 billion less than what Democrats have proposed. If that is the case, Democratic leaders in Congress will finance the government through a series of continuing resolutions.

So what does this mean for higher education? The Labor-Health and Human Services- Education bill is one of the 12 appropriation bills likely to be put on hold, however, there has been some action on the spending bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would increase the maximum Pell Grant by $69, to $4,800, and spending on the National Institutes of Health would grow by $1 billion. The bill would also provide an increase for the federal TRIO programs for disadvantaged students and Gear Up, which helps low-income students prepare for college. The Perkins Loan forgiveness program would receive a $5.7 million increase over the current year, for a total of $70 million.

On the House side, the House Labor-HHS-Education bill, which raises the Pell Grant by $169, to $4,900, has been delayed indefinitely, because of partisan fighting. Republicans offered a motion to strip out all of the bill’s language and replace it with unrelated provisions, including one authorizing an expansion of oil drilling in the United States. House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wisc., has now shot down the possibility of any further movement on appropriations bill mark-ups out of the Appropriations Committee.

Of the 12 appropriations bills, the House Appropriations Committee has passed five: Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy-Water, Financial Services, Homeland Security, and Military Construction-Veterans Affairs. The Senate Appropriations Committee has passed three: Commerce-Justice-Science, Homeland Security, and Labor-HHS Education. Given the understanding that the federal government will most likely operate under a continuing resolution at fiscal year 2008 funding levels, the appropriation bills that have cleared committee may sit dormant.

Congress has also yet to renew the Higher Education Act, the bill that includes program authorizations for Pell Grants, student loans, TRIO, GEAR UP, international education, and more. A reauthorization of the law is already five years overdue. While the timeline for completion of the bill is unclear, many involved in the process believe the bill will be completed before the August recess. Staff to the members who are working through differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill say they still expect that this will be the year the renewal does get done. Meanwhile, Congress has passed the 13th extension to the Higher Education Act, which will expire at the end of the month.

Veteran benefits for students included in Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2008
After compromises between Congress and the White House, both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2008 that includes veteran tuition benefits allowing veterans who have served in the military for at least three years since September 11, 2001, to receive up to the full cost of a four year education at a public college, plus a monthly stipend for housing and money for books and supplies. A provision was also added that allows service members to transfer their educational benefits to their spouses and children. Service members could make such a transfer to their spouses after having completed six years of service and committing to serving in the military for at least four more years. President Bush signed the legislation, H.R. 2642, June 30.

$2 million grant for dislocated worker training
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) was awarded a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor this week to help dislocated workers build their skills. The grant will assist dislocated workers over the age of 50 to boost entrepreneurial skills, provide information on how to build a business plan and find resources to launch a new business. The pilot project is a partnership between DEED and other organizations including the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.