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Senate Higher Ed Bill Emerges (Slowly)

June 19, 2007

The panel that advises the secretary of education on accreditation issues has grown increasingly controversial in recent months, as many college and accrediting officials have accused the Education Department of trying to use the committee to compel colleges and universities to collect and report more extensive data on student learning -- without the need for new laws or federal rules.

Campus officials have looked to members of Congress to rein in the committee (and the department's regulatory and other efforts on accreditation generally) as they consider legislation to renew the Higher Education Act. A bill that the U.S. Senate education committee plans to consider tomorrow would go one step further -- jettisoning the advisory committee altogether.

The wide-ranging Higher Education Act measure released Monday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (a copy of which can be found here) would replace the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (whose 15 members are all appointed by the education secretary, a point of recent contention) with a new panel that would have roughly comparable duties and powers.

Even its name would be similar: the Accreditation and Institutional Quality and Integrity Advisory Committee. The major change: of the new panel's 15 members, five each would be appointed by the Education Department, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. The goal, said an aide to the Senate committee, is that the new committee would be "structured so that it's a little more independent" of the Education Department.

But if college leaders were hoping that lawmakers' recent criticism of the department's aggressive tack on accreditation meant that they objected to the department's overall goal -- forcing colleges to more clearly prove that they are effectively educating students -- they are likely to be disappointed by other elements of the Senate's draft legislation.

The bill, as currently written, would require accreditors to ensure that colleges "use empirical evidence" and "external indicators" to show how they perform in areas such as student retention, course and program completion and graduation, state licensure and job placement (for work-related programs), and enrollment of students in graduate programs.

Many college officials and accreditors have balked at the Education Department's efforts (through a just-completed negotiated rule making process) to force accreditors to compel colleges to measure such outcomes in quantitative ways, which they say could result in oversimplification. While the Senate language aims to give colleges significantly more flexibility than some of the Education Department's proposals -- recognizing the need for variation by type of institution and program, and for using external indicators "as appropriate" -- on the whole the Senate's current approach is meant to be "not inconsistent" with that of the department, according to Senate staff members.

The Senate bill would also endorse the Education Department's approach to the other issue most hotly debated in the accreditation negotiating process: the way many colleges treat academic credits from students transferring from institutions that are nationally rather than regionally accredited.

The Senate legislation would require accreditors to ensure that the colleges they oversee do not deny the transfer of a student's credit based solely on the accreditation status of the institution from which the student is transferring. That has been a top legislative priority of for-profit colleges, most of which are nationally accredited and many of which complain that colleges' transfer policies discriminate against them. But many officials of nonprofit colleges have fought such a change previously, arguing that it would intrude on the most fundamental academic decisions of their institutions.

The accreditation language may be the most noteworthy aspect of the Senate bill to renew the Higher Education Act, in part because the measure released Monday is incomplete. Members of the Senate education committee are still negotiating over (and disagreeing on) perhaps the most significant elements of the legislative package: the "budget reconciliation" measure that contains provisions that would spend and save money.

That is where senators have some of their toughest and most contentious decisions to make, most notably how much to slash from the subsidies for student loan providers (the House of Representatives education committee approved a parallel budget reconciliation measure last week). Those decisions will influence how much money would be available to increase actual spending on Pell Grants and other student aid programs, among other things. (Late Monday, a deal was reportedly reached between Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Michael B. Enzi, the Democratic chairman and senior Republican on the education panel, that would cut into lender profits less than a parallel bill in the House would. Details to follow.)

Senators are said to be sharply divided over how much less to cut the subsidies for nonprofit rather than for-profit loan providers, according to a Senate aide. Democrats and Republicans on the committee were continuing to negotiate into the evening Monday, with the hope of resolving that and other disputes so that the committee could consider fully bipartisan Higher Education Act and budget reconciliation bills Wednesday.

Even without the budget reconciliation legislation, college lobbyists and others had plenty to digest in the Senate's Higher Education Act bill, which ran a full 534 pages and covered a huge amount of ground. Among many, many other things, the legislation would do the following:

  • Set at $6,300 the authorization level to which Congress can raise the maximum amount Pell Grant. But the legislation would provide no funds to assure an actual Pell Grant increase; any such rise could occur only through the budget reconciliation legislation.
  • Significantly increase the amount of information that colleges would be required to report about their costs and prices, and create a "Higher Education Price Increase Watch List" to rank (and publicly embarrass) institutions with tuition and fees that "outpace the applicable price index" for its type of institution. The bill's approach on college costs would be less punitive to colleges than the approach taken in a parallel House bill.
  • Institute a broad series of restrictions on the relationships between lenders and guarantee agencies and colleges and universities, consistent with many of the changes included in the Student Loan Sunshine Act and the code of conduct that New York's attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, has promulgated. Among other changes, the Senate bill would phase out the "school as lender" program by 2011, but unlike other legislative proposals circulating in Washington, it would continue to allow banks to make philanthropic contributions to colleges that are unrelated to their financial aid programs.
  • Open the Academic Competitiveness Grant Program (which heretofore has been restricted to full-time students in degree-granting programs) to students attending college at least half time and to those in certificate programs. The current restrictions on the program have been particularly nettlesome to community college officials, which have many such students. "The Senate legislation removes the unfair and anachronistic barriers to program participation that have helped make ACGs so unpopular on our campuses," said David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. The bill would also lift a restriction that limited the grants (and the parallel SMART Grants) to American-born citizens.
  • Eases the requirement that for-profit colleges derive at least 10 percent of their revenue from sources other than federal financial aid funds, by expanding the sources of funds that the institutions may count in the 10 percent figure (additions include funds from 529 savings plans and institutional aid, among others). That change, along with the bill's language on transfer of credit, elated officials at career-related colleges. "We're pleased with the recognition that schools in our sector are just as important" as others," said Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association.
  • Prohibit the Education Department from establishing a national database of student academic records, though it permits states and consortiums of states to do so, which is the direction federal and state policy makers seem to be moving in anyway.
  • Institute a broad array of changes aimed at simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the process of applying for federal financial assistance.
  • Require international studies programs applying for federal funds to explain how they "will reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views" and how they will deal with disputes regarding whether they are meeting that goal.
  • Greatly expand the information that colleges must report to the government and/or to students, to include information on their policies on illegal file sharing and downloading of music and movies, the racial and ethnic diversity of their financial aid recipients, and fire safety, among many other things.

The Senate's budget reconciliation legislation could be released as soon as today, and the education panel is set to take up the entire package tomorrow.

 

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