A House Dividing?

College groups take divergent approaches to lobbying as vote on the Higher Education Act nears.
March 27, 2006

As the House of Representatives prepares to vote this week on legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, college lobbying groups are debating -- individually and collectively -- whether and how strongly to express opposition to the bill, which they almost uniformly dislike.

Their efforts are complicated by the fact that they don't know exactly what's in the measure, and probably won’t until fewer than 24 hours before the bill hits the House floor Wednesday.

For now, most of the leading college groups are holding their tongues publicly. They say it would be premature to formally state their position on the legislation until they see whether Republican leaders have altered the bill to deal with the many concerns the colleges expressed when the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the measure last summer and have continued to raise in direct appeals to lawmakers and their staffs in the weeks since. Officials from the American Council on Education and the other college associations have been working with Congressional leaders, particularly the office of Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, the California Republican who now heads the education committee, and are hopeful that they can nudge the bill in a favorable direction.

But other college groups are taking differing approaches, amid emerging signs of tension and potential conflict in the college lobby. On Friday, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities urged its members to aggressively fight the bill unless provisions on college costs and accreditation are stripped from it. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers, too, has been telling its members to oppose the bill if the final version of it includes a provision that dictates colleges’ policies on transfer of academic credit.

"We just felt we couldn't wait any longer" to tell private college officials about the most objectionable parts of the bill and to "give our members a chance to express themselves to their elected representatives,"  said Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy at the independent colleges group. She described the college groups as having reached a "fork in the road" last week in deciding how to respond to the Higher Education Act bill.

The situation is very fluid, and is expected to come to a head in the next 72 hours. Last week, the House Education and the Workforce Committee posted on its Web site a copy of the bill ( H.R. 609) as it now stands. The bill largely mirrors the legislation as it looked when it was passed by the education panel last summer, except that it has been stripped of the provisions from the Higher Ed Act that were wrapped into the budget reconciliation legislation that Congress enacted in December.

But leaders of the Education and the Workforce Committee are expected to release by Tuesday a revised version of the bill -- known in Capitol Hill parlance as a “manager’s amendment” -- that would be what is actually considered on the House floor. The legislation needs to be ready at the latest by Tuesday afternoon, when the House Rules Committee will vote on the guidelines that will govern how the debate and voting on the Higher Ed Act bill will unfold when it begins Wednesday, as currently scheduled. Also due before the rules committee are any amendments that Democratic or Republican lawmakers wish to offer on the bill.

College lobbyists have been scrambling to get information about what will be in the final version of the bill, partly so they can urge friendly lawmakers to offer amendments to fix perceived problems and partly so they can decide how aggressively to rally opposition to undesirable provisions.

But to their frustration, information about what’s in the bill has been extremely difficult to come by, as Republican lawmakers have shared little intelligence. (More than one college lobbyist referred to the bill as a “black box,” like the airline data recorders that are essentially impenetrable.)

Lobbyists for the major higher education associations have expressed some hope that Republican leaders of Congress will soften some of the provisions in the bill that public and private college leaders most dislike. Those include measures favored by officials of for-profit institutions that would (1) weaken rules that require colleges to generate at least 10 percent of their revenues from sources other than federal financial aid programs, and  (2) create a “single definition” of a higher education institution, in a way that would expand the sorts of federal grants that for-profit institutions would qualify to compete for.

At meetings last week among college lobbyists, officials of the major "presidential" higher ed associations -- led by the American Council on Education, and including groups of research universities, state institutions and community colleges -- apparently signaled that they were unlikely to formally oppose the bill under any circumstances, but would instead plan (once they saw a final version of the bill) to write a letter asking for changes in certain parts of it.

The college groups hope to maintain good relationships with Republican Congressional leaders and to maintain their political capital for later in the year when Senate and House lawmakers meet to craft a compromise version of the Higher Ed Act bill (except for for-profit institutions, college groups prefer the Senate's version to the House's). The college groups are also loathe to openly pick a fight with McKeon and with Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the new House Majority Leader, in one of their first major legislative endeavors in their new roles.

For NAICU, at least, the other college associations' more passive approach did not suffice.

David L. Warren, the association’s president, sent an e-mail missive urging private college presidents to call their members of Congress about the bill. “This is the most important call I have asked you to make in my 12 years as president of NAICU,” Warren wrote. He said they should urge their representatives to oppose the bill unless lawmakers strip out provisions that would require colleges that are perceived as raising their prices too much to develop plans to rein in the fees (which Warren called “price control provisions”) and that would allow states to act as accreditors.

“The first is inappropriate federal control, and the second opens the door to inappropriate state control,” Warren wrote. 

Officials at the registrars' group said it, too, had decided to formally oppose the bill unless House leaders strip out a provision that the registrars' association says would dictate colleges' policies on transfer of credit.


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