Starting In on the Higher Ed Act

A House panel approves bills on graduate and international education, beginning formal work on the massive federal law.
June 17, 2005

And they're off.

Members of the 109th Congress took their first formal actions on renewing the Higher Education Act Thursday, as the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Select Education drafted bills that deal with two sections of the mammoth higher education law.

The two pieces of legislation approved and sent on to the full House committee Thursday, dealing with international education and graduate education, were far less controversial than some aspects of the reauthorization are likely to be, although college lobbyists had some concerns about aspects of both bills.
H.R. 509, the International Studies in Higher Education Act, authorizes the programs that fall under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which offer grants for study of foreign languages, international and area studies, and international business education, among other things.

The one section of the bill that troubles some college officials is the proposed creation of an International Higher Education Advisory Board, which is designed to "increase accountability by providing advice and recommendations to the secretary of education and the Congress" on international higher education issues.

Higher education lobbyists say their problems are less with the creation of the panel itself than with its form and structure. While it advises the education secretary, it does not report to that person -- or to anyone else, for that matter -- "the recommendations of the International Advisory Board shall not be subject to review or approval by any officer of the federal government," the legislation reads.

That independence, and the board's charge to "assess a sample of activities" in federally financed international education programs, leaves open the possibility of "intrusion into academic freedom" by the board, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said at Thursday's hearing.

"We believe the current legislation leaves open the possibility that the Advisory Board could intrude into the academic conduct and content of higher education and could impinge on institutional decisions about curriculum and activities," the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, and other higher education groups said in a 2003 letter about a previous but similar version of the legislation. "[T]he powers vested in the proposed Advisory Board make it more of an  investigative, rather than an advisory, body."

The legislation's Republican sponsors note that it specifically states that "nothing in the this title should be construed to authorize the International Advisory Board to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction or instructor." But the panel's broad power to demand information from any government agency or college gives it the power to "go on a witchhunt on any kind of issue," says M. Matthew Owens, senior federal relations officer for the Association of American Universities.

Delving into another pressing area of contention (and legal wrangling), the international education bill would also require any college that receives international education funds to give government recruiters -- including those for the military -- "the same access to students as is provided generally to other institutions of higher education and prospective employers of those students for the purpose of recruiting for graduate opportunities or prospective employment."

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear in its term that begins next fall a lawsuit challenging whether Congress acted constitutionally in 1994 when it passed a law restricting the flow of federal funds to colleges that bar military recruiters from their campuses because the Pentagon’s policy on gay and lesbian servicemembers violates their nondiscrimination policies.

The second bill adopted by the House panel Thursday (H.R. 510) would renew several key programs that provide federal funds for graduate study, like the Jacob K. Javits  Fellowship Program and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Education Opportunity Program, and for the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

The most significant change the proposed measure would make is that it would put into law a specific instruction that in awarding grants through the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need Program, the Education Department should give priority to college and university programs aimed at producing professors who will train elementary and secondary school teachers in math, science, special education and English as a second language.

Supporters of the GAANN program, as it is known, are concerned that writing that priority into law would skew the process by which the Education Department continually reassesses what the nation's needs are and which academic programs should be funded because they are best positioned to address those needs. Says Owens of AAU: "The program already works extremely well."


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