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.

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