Edging Toward Acceptability

After dropping or softening several contentious provisions, divided House passes a Higher Education Act bill.
March 31, 2006

Democrats don't like it. Student groups don't like it. And really, most college officials still don't like it either, because they believe it does too little to help make college more affordable for students, which is the ultimate aim of the Higher Education Act.

But by the time the U.S. House of Representatives had finished its work Thursday on legislation to extend the law that governs federal financial aid and other college programs, most of the Washington groups that represent the nation's colleges and universities had dropped their opposition to the bill, and others acknowledged that Republican Congressional leaders had taken steps to make it more palatable, if still an overall disappointment.

"In the past we had significant reservations about several parts of the bill that the House approved today," David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said Thursday. "While some concerns remain, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Howard P. (Buck) McKeon has made a significant number of positive modifications that will help minimize the regulatory impact on colleges and universities. We are grateful that Mr. McKeon was responsive."

The House passed H.R. 609, the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2005, by a vote of 221 to 199, largely along party lines, with a small amount of crossover (14 Democrats voted Yes, and 18 Republicans voted No). Passage of the bill was never in doubt, given the sizable Republican majority in Congress. But in recent weeks, McKeon, a California Republican, and other party leaders have worked hard to satisfy at least some of the concerns expressed by Democrats and by college officials, and to make the bill appear, as much as possible, to be a bipartisan effort with broad support.

They've done that not by making any fundamental changes in the bill -- any truly significant changes would entail increases in funding levels, which would fly in the face of the fiscal conservativism Republican leaders are pushing -- but by backing away from some of the policy changes to which college officials have most objected.

On Tuesday, in advance of the House vote, for instance, McKeon released a new version of the legislation that abandoned a plan to radically reshape the formula for distributing funds for the three "campus based" student aid programs, which was a key priority for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and for other private and public four-year institutions. It also eased several requirements on colleges that raise their tuitions significantly and repeatedly.

Late Wednesday, House Republican leaders agreed to make other changes in the bill that led the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which had aggressively fought the measure, to drop its opposition. On the House floor Thursday, lawmakers approved an amendment from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) that both struck from the bill a provision that would have allowed states to accredit colleges and further softened a set of reporting and other requirements about colleges' tuitions.

"From NAICU's perspective, the bill that emerged from the Housewas much improved over the version first presented," David L. Warren, the association's president, said. "Although the changes made in H.R. 609 still did not bring us to a position of being able to support the measure, these changes do represent substantial progress."

NAICU officials said they had dropped their opposition even though the House-passed version of the bill did not fully meet their demand that all signs of "price controls" be dropped. The version of the bill approved Thursday requires the top 5 percent (down from 10 percent as late as Wednesday) of colleges that are deemed to have raised their tuitions excessively over a three-year period to create panels of administrators, professors, alumni, students and others to explore their costs and operations.

While some presidents of NAICU institutions continued to believe such a system represented a "price control," Sarah A. Flanagan, the association's vice president for government relations, said its officials concluded that Republican lawmakers had kept their promises.

Not everyone was swayed. In opposing the bill, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers had cited the now-dropped provision allowing states to accredit and another that sought to mandate that colleges must not have policies that reject a transfer student's academic credits solely based on the kind of accreditation at the transferring institution. Although the House approved an amendment from Reps. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) and Timothy Bishop (D-N.Y.) that dropped the credit-transfer requirement -- while maintaining adamant that they publicly disclose their policies on the subject -- AACRAO stood firm in opposing the bill.

"Our members’ voice has certainly been heard on a number of issues, including transfer," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the registrars' group. "Unfortunately, the bill still falls short of what the nation needs and should be sent back for more improvements."

That was certainly the overall theme of the bill's other opponents, especially those -- including leading Democrats like Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) -- who believe that the underlying House bill does too little to help students pay for college. The House rejected along party lines a sweeping alternative to the bill, offered by Miller and other Democrats, that would have cut the interest rate for students in half for a year, among other things.

“The single largest higher education issue for American families is how to pay for college,” said Luke Swarthout, higher education associate for the State PIRGs, which represents student interests. “It is disappointing that Congress would try to pass major higher education legislation without seriously addressing the core concern of American families.”

Republican leaders said that criticism was unfair. McKeon noted that the legislation would allow students to receive Pell Grant funds year-round and repeal the federal rule that limits the amount of Pell aid a student attending a very low-cost school may receive. Those and other changes, he said, will make it easier for students to pay for college -- as, he argued, would the provisions that require more and better reporting on why colleges charge parents and students so much.

”Expanding college access remains a fundamental goal for this nation and this Congress,” McKeon said. “Part of this effort is adding more sunlight into the discussion about higher education -- and the rising costs of a college education in particular.  This bill adds that necessary sunlight, and it will make a difference for countless students.”

In approving the bill, even many Republicans took issue with one effort to shine sunlight -- on the role of race in college admissions. To the dismay of college lobbyists, House Republican leaders cleared for a vote Thursday an amendment from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that would have required all colleges that receive federal aid to report annually to the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights on whether and how they take "race, color or nation [sic] origin" into account in admissions. The amendment also would have required reporting on whether the colleges had tried alternatives to affirmative action and how students of different races and those "in a group favored" by a college's policies compared with other students in terms of graduation rates.

King argued that the amendment would help Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court figure out whether colleges were complying with the guidelines for affirmative action contained in the court's 2003 decisions involving the University of Michigan. The reports would also help students by giving those who benefit from affirmative action "a sense of their chances of success," King said, adding that it would help colleges, too,since "they should be interested in determining the effectiveness of their policies."

Colleges didn't quite see it that way, as the American Council on Education and the National Association for College Admission Counseling kicked into a fast and furious lobbying campaign that warned of potential violations of student privacy and huge new administrative burdens for colleges. Privately, some college officials decried the proposal as a fishing expedition that would only help lawyers for potential plaintiffs in affirmative action lawsuits. King's proposal lost handily, with 142 Republians joining every Democrat in opposing it.

Ultimately, as college officials assessed where the House bill ended up from when Republican lawmakers introduced it two years ago, or even reintroduced it a year ago, they looked at the bright side, and focused on their hope for even more changes in their direction as House lawmakers seek to craft a compromise with a Senate version of the higher ed bill, on which significant work remains to be done.

"The House made some significant and positive changes on the floor and voted down onerous reporting proposals with little or no practical value," said Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. "Though we still have concerns about certain provisions in the bill, we look forward to working with Chairman McKeon, his House colleagues, and the Senate throughout the remainder of this process."


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