Jumpstarting the Higher Ed Act

Both houses of Congress gear up activity this week, aiming to pass sweeping college bill in 2007.
March 9, 2007

The Higher Education Act, the law that governs the federal student financial aid programs and other important aspects of American higher education, was last renewed in 1998, and Congress has tried and failed for more than three years now to pass legislation to review and extend it again. Since they took control of Congress this year, Democratic leaders have vowed to pass such legislation – and this week, they showed signs that they actually mean it. (A betting person, though, might think twice before wagering on the likelihood passage in 2007, as the impediments are significant; more on that later.)

On Thursday, the House of Representatives Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education, Competitiveness and Lifelong Learning held the first of what aides said would be virtually every-other-week hearings between now and late spring as part of the full Education and Labor Committee’s review of the Higher Education Act. Congressional aides and college lobbyists said the committee planned to draft a bill to renew the Higher Ed Act by July, with the aim of passing it in September, after Congress returns from its summer recess.

The subcommittee plans to focus most of its discussions around issues of student access and affordability, while the full House committee is expected to emphasize “high impact” (and potentially big headline) issues such as the behavior of student loan companies and teacher education, which are particularly important to the full committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. George Miller of California.

Thursday’s first hearing by the subcommittee featured several student aid experts talking about the subject “"The State of Higher Education: How Students Access and Finance a Higher Education." Given that tightly focused topic (irony intended), the testimony -- from think tank types and researchers -- was broadly framed and mostly unsurprising. There was widespread agreement from the witnesses (at least the three invited by the Democratic majority) that the country needs to do much more to help low-income students afford college (closing what Ross Wiener of the Education Trust called the “unsustainable inequality” in college access based on Americans’ race and class), and that need-based aid is the best way to expand college access.

Those views are generally supported by the panel’s Republican members, too, but in the mirror image of the committee’s work in the 109th Congress (when the GOP controlled the committee’s work and Democrats acted consistently aggrieved), Republicans on the subcommittee complained about the witnesses’ “liberal” slant and accused them of ignoring the supply side of the access and affordability question: colleges’ prices and failure to control them.

Rep. Ric Keller of Florida, the senior Republican on the subcommittee, lashed out at Wiener’s suggestion that federal and state governments have “shifted [their] emphasis so profoundly” from need-based policies that focus help on low income students to merit-based financial aid and other policies aimed at the middle class. Noting that the maximum Pell Grant grew from $3,300 in 2001 to $4,310 now, Keller asked, “What the heck are you talking about in terms of us shifting all of our money to middle class?”

As Wiener tried to answer, Keller cut him off and moved on to his next question, in which he complained that colleges are raising tuition too fast and suggested that too-rapid increases in federal financial aid might be driving those increases.

“I’ve never seen credible evidence that federal student aid contributes to tuition increases,” Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, responded.

As the House committee got its Higher Education Act review under way, the parallel panel in the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was pursuing a more aggressive legislative schedule, higher education lobbyists said. Based on briefings they’d had from Senate aides, college officials said that Democratic and Republican aides began working this week to update S. 1614, the Higher Education Act legislation that the Senate panel passed (on a bipartisan basis) in the 109th Congress.

Senators are said to be planning to use the 2006 legislation (with one fairly large exception) as the foundation for a bill that they hope to bring to a committee vote in early April. The exception is Title IV, which is the section of the Higher Education Act that contains all of the student aid and student loan provisions, and is by far the most complicated part of the law. It is also the section of the legislation that is likeliest to produce the kind of partisan fighting (over issues like whether and how much to try to pay for enhanced need-based aid by cutting into lender subsidies; whether to encourage colleges to shift into the government’s direct loan program; and how much to try to rein in colleges’ prices) that characterized Thursday’s House hearing.

And that -- along with the fact that the Higher Education Act will have to compete for the Congressional education committees’ time and attention with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is also up for renewal this year -- makes some college lobbyists skeptical about the prospect that Congress, despite the fact that it stepped up its activity this week to match its rhetoric, will actually end up renewing the Higher Education Act this year.

Along those lines, one of higher education's more literary-minded lobbyists, when told that the Senate committee was moving ahead aggressively on its Higher Education Act bill -- but without yet having reached agreement on the thorny Title IV section -- mused: "That's like trying to do a production of Hamlet without Hamlet."


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