A (Slightly) Kinder, Gentler Higher Ed Bill

On eve of vote, House leaders make changes in key legislation to bolster support, but critics aren't won over.
March 29, 2006

With the House of Representatives prepared to begin debate today on legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, Republican leaders unveiled a set of changes late Tuesday aimed at softening some of the provisions to which college groups most object. But while higher education lobbyists generally welcomed the nod in their direction, most said the changes were too modest to win them over.

The most significant changes contained in the "manager's amendment" released by the leaders of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce:

  • Dropped a plan that would have radically reshaped the formula for distributing funds through the three "campus based" student aid programs -- the Perkins Loan, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and Work Study Programs -- in ways that would have shifted funds away from many private colleges that have been in the programs for decades and toward younger institutions, like community colleges and for-profit institutions.
  • Eliminated or eased several of the requirements on colleges that raise their tuitions significantly and repeatedly.
  • Clarified a provision that would let state agencies accredit colleges by saying specifically that the agencies cannot require institutions in the state to be accredited by them.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said that the changes made clear that House leaders "were trying to move in the direction that many of the [higher education] associations would like." Whether "that will be enough to satisfy us as a community" is uncertain, he said, and would depend largely on how various college groups view the process of renewing the Higher Ed Act.

"If you're prepared to see this as a work in progress where they are moving in our direction, this accomplishes that," Hartle said. "But if you see this as a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation, these changes are unlikely to move you."

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which like several other college groups had expressed opposition to the bill unless major changes were made, said that despite what it called "progress," it could not support the bill.

"The substitute amendment ... makes substantial improvements to the price control provisions and the states-as-accreditors sections of the bill," David L. Warren, NAICU's president, said in an e-mail to his members in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. "However , it still requires institutions that exceed a federally prescribed price index ceiling to submit plans to the Secretary of Education for keeping their rates of tuition increase below the index in the future -- leaving in de facto price control mechanisms.  Unfortunately, until all such federal price mechanisms are removed from the bill, NAICU will have to oppose the legislation."

At its core, most higher education and student groups view the current Higher Ed Act renewal as a lost opportunity, because the legislation, as it has moved through the long and complicated Congressional process over the past year, is poised to deliver relatively little in the way of new benefits for students, apart from a new math and science grant program enacted as part of budget reconciliation legislation in December.

Instead, the measure contains numerous provisions that they say will intensify federal regulation of higher education, most notably by requiring significantly more reporting on college costs, which McKeon and others have pushed as essential to protecting students and families.

As recently as Monday, Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the education panel, who voted for and against the Higher Ed Act legislation along party lines when the committee approved the bill last summer, were reportedly striving to craft a bipartisan version of the legislation to take to the House floor today. College leaders were hopeful that that cooperation might push the bill even further in their direction, but the cooperative effort apparently fell apart within the last 36 hours, and Democratic leaders said Tuesday that they planned to oppose the legislation on the House floor.

The House’s deliberation over the measure is likely to be a contentious one, although the House Rules Committee, which sets the terms of the debate, sharply limited it. As of Tuesday afternoon, members of the House had proposed 117 amendments to the bill. But the Rules Committee said late Tuesday that only 14 of them (in addition to McKeon's substitute version) could be offered on the House floor Wednesday, which was sure to infuriate Democrats, who had offered many of the proposed amendments. Among the amendments ruled out of order was a proposal from Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and  Thomas Petri (R-Wisc.) to reward colleges that shift to the direct lending program, which lenders had fought vigorously.

The changes that House leaders made Tuesday in their underlying legislation pleased some groups quite a bit. Some groups of private colleges, like the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, had made it their top priority to stop the proposed change in the formula for distributing campus-based aid, and they were delighted that the version of the measure released Tuesday would keep the status quo and instead direct the Government Accountability Office to study and assess the current formula.

Opponents of other controversial provisions in the bill were less fully satisfied. NAICU and other groups had pushed the committee to abandon a set of provisions they called “cost controls” -- a characterization vigorously disputed by McKeon and Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), the new chairman of the postsecondary education subcommittee.

“There are no price controls in the bill – only more valuable information for the consumers of higher education: parents and students,” the two lawmakers said in a letter to their colleagues. The bill, they said, would “publicly identify federally funded institutions that repeatedly engage in excessive tuition hikes, giving consumers an index they can use to track tuition increases and make more informed decisions in their college spending. Institutions that increase tuition and fees at more than twice the rate of inflation over a three-year interval will be publicly identified and asked to provide information to the public about the causes of tuition increases, as well as strategies that will be used to help hold down tuition in the future.”

In an attempt to appease some of the critics, though, the panel’s leaders – “working in good faith and in a bipartisan manner,” McKeon and Keller said -- dropped requirements that a college that is found to raise its tuition too much send the Education Department a “management plan” and an “action plan” showing how it plans to reduce or stabilize its tuition and fees, and also ended plans to involve the Education Department's inspector general, its enforcement arm, in the process. The revised legislation also lowered the proportion of colleges that, because their tuition prices are high, would have to establish panels on their campuses to review the cost-effectiveness of their operations.

But those and the other changes were insufficient to alter the view of the groups that had already expressed their opposition to the bill.

Among other changes, the new version of the legislation would:

  • Call for the Education Department and National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of the quality of distance education programs.
  • Add graduate programs at three universities -- Fayetteville State, Langston and West Virginia State -- to those that qualify to participate in the Historically Black Graduate Institutions programs.
  • Increase to $500,000 from $400,000 the size of a minimum grant for institutions in the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities program.


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