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Advice for the Senate

August 25, 2005

As Senate staff members prepare to unveil their chamber's version of legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, possibly as soon as September 7, seven higher education associations have issued a position paper that urges Senators follow a different path from their House colleagues on several key issues.

While most college lobbyists believed that the measure approved last month by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce improved somewhat as it moved through the legislative process, they still found much to dislike in it. And as is often the case, they hope the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will pass a better bill and push, when the two chambers work out a compromise measure, to fix the flaws the college groups perceivein the House measure.

Toward that end, the associations -- groups representing community colleges, state and land grant colleges, research universities, private colleges, and Jesuit institutions, as well as the American Council on Education -- released a paper that discusses what they call "some of the issues that proved the most controversial during the House" consideration of the bill.

First and foremost on the groups' issues list is a plea that the Senate panel not try to carve most of the $13 billion in savings it must produce to meet Congress's budget balancing goals out of higher education programs, as the associations assert that the House panel did. "The House Education and the Workforce Committee derived almost all of its required savings from the loan programs (more than $11 billion)," the position paper says. "We urge the HELP Committee to lessen the devastating impact of the House’s cuts and produce no more than half its savings, preferably much less, from student aid."

To the extent that cuts in student loan programs are necessary, the groups say, students should be protected, and any changes in the loan programs should maintain a competitive balance between the the guaranteed loan program and the government-run direct loan program. The groups identify several provisions in the House bill that they say hurt direct lending.

The associations urge Senate lawmakers not to follow the House's lead in supporting President Bush's plan to give additional Pell Grant funds to students who have participated in the State Scholars Program, a privately run program aimed at encouraging high school students to take more rigorous courses. While the groups cite a report by the Education Department's inspector general to raise questions about the quality of that program specifically, they urge Senators more generally to avoid any dilution of the Pell program's focus on providing purely need-based aid to the lowest-income students.

The groups also ask the Senate panel to roll back several changes that the House legislation would make in federal rules regarding for-profit colleges and distance education providers. Changing the Higher Education Act to combine for-profit and nonprofit institutions under a "single definition" of an "institution of higher education" -- eliminating the separate categories that exist now -- would reduce Education Department funds now available to institutions that serve large numbers of minority students and community colleges and could give for-profit institutions access to programs at a slew of other agencies, the groups argue.

Doing so "would enhance corporate earnings by substituting federal funds for institutional  expenditures," and "limited Higher Education Act and other federal funds should not be used for this purpose."

The associations recommend that the Senate reject changes the House panel would make in the so-called 90/10 rule, which requires institutions to generate at least 10 percent of their revenues from sources other than federal student aid. The rule was enacted in the early 1990s as part of a crackdown on shoddy trade schools, and any weakening of it "will simply encourage the suspect recruiting practices that have been the focus of extensive attention from the media and the Department of Education Inspector General," the groups argue.

Career college lobbyists say the law prevents them from educating as many low-income students in urban areas as they might otherwise.

The associations also urge the Senate to:

  • "Promote the development and distribution of user-friendly consumer information both about college tuitions and available aid," rather than "requiring institutions to generate new reports for the Secretary of Education, or ... putting the federal government in the middle ofcollege pricing decisions."
  • Shun proposals that would require public disclosure of all accreditation findings, which they say  "would substantially change the nature of the accreditation process and undermine the
    candor that helps make the process successful."
  • Reject "federal proposals that would dictate the standards to be used in accepting transfer credits. Transfer of credit decisions are a fundamental part of an institution's fulfillment of its academic mission and the value of the degrees it awards."

The groups that signed the position paper were, in addition to the American Council on Education, the American Association of Community Colleges, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Association of American Universities, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of State Universities & Land-Grant Colleges.

 

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