Cost of College a Bipartisan Concern

House Democrats introduce Higher Education Act bill that would shame institutions that raise prices sharply; 747-page measure would increase federal role in other ways, too.
November 12, 2007

Congressional Republicans have been making known for years their concern about the rapidly escalating tuitions that colleges are charging. Higher education leaders have held out hope that Democratic lawmakers, now that they control Congress, would be more sympathetic to their arguments that the price increases are justified -- or at least that colleges should be left to fix the problem on their own, without federal intervention.

That hope was largely dashed Friday, when the leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee released a long-awaited bill to extend the Higher Education Act. The massive 747-page legislation is a hodgepodge of proposals touching on a remarkably wide array of issues -- student loan ethics, financial aid simplification, accreditation, help for students with disabilities, and the like.

But perhaps its most striking features are that it reveals clearly (1) that Congressional Democrats are as frustrated by the price of college as their Republican counterparts, and (2) that Democratic lawmakers are, like their Republican peers and the Bush administration, willing to expand the federal role in higher education, not only in the college cost arena but into such areas as textbook prices and technology policies.

The expanded federal role is clearest in the realm of college costs and prices. Like companion legislation already passed by the Senate and previous versions of the Higher Ed Act legislation drafted by Republicans in the previous Congress, the House Democrats' bill would require greatly increased reporting about how colleges spend their money, and create "Higher Education Price Increase Watch Lists" of institutions that increase their tuitions above the average for their peers. (There are exemptions for colleges whose dollar increases are small and for those whose tuitions are in the bottom quartile of their categories.)

Each institution on the lists -- which would essentially serve as a "Hall of Shame" for colleges -- would be required to create a "quality efficiency task force" that must analyze the ways in which the institution is operating "more expensively [than its peers] to produce a similar result" and figure out how to cut its costs.

Previous legislation in the House would have required such colleges to explain to the government how they planned to reduce the costs, so this version actually represents a slight softening of the proposal in that regard. It also would offer increased Pell Grant aid to colleges that kept tuition increases low and includes a provision -- endorsed by many leaders of public colleges, who've argued that they have had to raise their tuitions to make up for diminished state support -- that would require states to maintain their financial support of higher education and allow the Education Department to withhold some funds to states that cut their college appropriations.

But the open embrace of the bill by House Republicans -- including Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), who headed the Education and Labor Committee during the Republican-led 109th Congress and for whom college prices have been a front-burner issue for a decade -- signaled the extent to which lawmakers in both parties have coalesced around rising tuition as a major problem. Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts led the Democratic push to attack rising tuitions in the House bill, and the committee's chairman, Rep. George Miller of California, has been telling anyone who will listen of late that constituents talk to him more about college prices than about any other issue.

“For too long, students, parents, and taxpayers have been held hostage to the ever-rising cost of a college education," McKeon said in a news release about the bill, which was introduced by Miller and Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), who heads the House postsecondary education panel. "[A]ccess to college has been pushed further out of reach for far too many Americans because costs have spiraled out of control. With this bill, Congress is sending an unmistakable signal that colleges and universities need to be accountable to consumers. That begins with sunshine and transparency.”

College costs are far from the only area in which the House bill would significantly increase federal oversight of and involvement in the affairs of higher education, most often through significantly expanded reporting of information. The legislation, for instance, would

  • Dictate that colleges craft plans for giving their students legal ways to download movie and music, and that institutions explore technologies to stop illegal peer to peer file sharing.
  • Create a new federal position, an "ombudsman," to intervene in disputes related to accreditation. It's not entirely clear on whose behalf the ombudsman is supposed to act -- colleges that feel wronged by their accreditors, accrediting groups that believe they've been unfairly treated by the Education Department, or others.
  • Mandate that colleges publish the International Standard Book Number for all books in their course schedules to help students shop for books more cost effectively, and that publishers expand the information they provide to faculty members about pricing and changes from past editions.
  • Compel colleges that receive funds under the Higher Education Act's Title VI (which related to international education and study abroad) to collect and report as part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System the names and addresses of all donors who contribute at least $1 million. The genesis of this particular proposal is unclear.
  • Give the Education Department significantly more authority to regulate private student loans, as part of a broad set of provisions -- prompted by the recent investigations into illegal inducements given to colleges by lenders -- aimed at cracking down on the behavior of lenders and college officials in making loans to students.
  • Increase federal reporting of campus alcohol and drug incidents and fatalities and require reporting for the first time on campus fires.

There is much that college officials like about the proposed Higher Education Act legislation, which the House Education and Labor Committee plans to consider on Wednesday. This is particularly true in areas in which there is little dispute, such as calling for more financial aid for students. The legislation, which would extend the operating authority for most college programs for five years, would:

  • Set a ceiling on the maximum Pell Grant of $9,000, and allow for students to receive Pell Grant funds year-round, instead of just during the traditional academic year.
  • Make some much-sought changes in the Academic Competitiveness Grant Program, including making the much-maligned grants for low-income students available to part-time students and those seeking certificates as well as degrees, and taking the education secretary out of the business of deciding whether high school programs are of sufficient academic rigor to quality students for the grants, leaving that decision instead up to state officials.
  • Create a new fellowship program, named for the late Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii, to help minority and female scholars attain the doctoral or master's degrees they need for careers in higher education.
  • Make several changes designed to make it easier for students to get information about their financial aid awards and to generally simplify the process by which students -- particularly those from low-income families -- can qualify for federal financial aid.
  • Establish a loan fund to help colleges and universities damaged or otherwise impaired by natural disasters such as the 2005 hurricanes in the Gulf Coast.

In many more areas, however, the lawmakers have tiptoed or stomped into contested areas in which something they do to help one party is almost inevitably going to upset others. Some of the those areas follow:

Illegal file sharing. The entertainment industry has increasingly had the ear of members of Congress, arguing that colleges are doing too little to stop students from illegally downloading content copyrighted movies, music and other material. The House Democrats' bill doesn't do everything entertainment industry officials would have liked; they had sought to have a provision added to the Senate's version of the Higher Education Act bill in July that would have required that institutions show that they are using “technology based” systems to stop such activity, and required the education secretary to annually identify (and publicly embarrass) the 25 colleges and universities that had in the previous year received the most notices of copyright violations using institutional technology networks.

The House bill doesn't go quite that far, but it would require significantly more reporting by colleges on their policies on illegal file sharing (including how they punish students who engage in the activity) and to "develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.”

While the entertainment industry cheered the introduction of the House legislation, with the Motion Picture Association of America commending "Chairman Miller for taking this step to protect intellectual property on college campuses,” Educause, higher education's technology association, urged its members to oppose the latter requirements, which it called "unacceptable." Among the reasons: "Campuses that offer legal downloading services typically must charge a student fee to cover the expense. Taken across all campuses, this practice could represent a transfer of over $400 million annually from higher education to the entertainment industry while raising the cost of higher education."

Accreditation. The House legislation seems likely to satisfy no one on issues of accreditation, which have deeply divided college officials and the Bush Education Department in recent months. The House bill bars the Education Department (through its process for recognizing accreditors) from dictating colleges' policies on measuring the learning outcomes of students, and it would radically restructure the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, allowing Congress to appoint 10 of the panel's 15 members (whereas now the department appoints all 15). But college leaders are troubled by the proposed creation of the ombudsman, whose purpose is left somewhat unclear by the legislation and which seems designed to give the federal government another tool to intervene in the relationship between colleges and accreditors.

For-profit/nonprofit college issues. The Republican-led Congress, in the Higher Education Act legislation it developed in 2005, took several policy positions that pleased representatives of for-profit colleges and infuriated many traditional college officials, including combining the separate definitions for for-profit and nonprofit colleges that currently exists in federal law into a "single definition" that would allow for-profit colleges to quality for some federal programs from which they are now excluded.

The legislation released by House Democrats would leave in place the separate definitions, to the satisfaction of officials from the American Association of Community Colleges and other groups, but it would alter (and in many ways soften) an existing requirement that for-profit colleges draw at least 10 percent of their revenues from sources other than the federal student-aid programs. Among the changes, the House bill would apply the requirement to nonprofit as well as for-profit colleges, allow colleges to count more sources of funds within the 10 percent pool, and ease the penalties on colleges that violate the mandate. The Career College Association said it welcomed the proposed changes but would seek even more flexibility; lobbyists for traditional colleges said the changes in the "90/10" rule as it is known, would undermine it in ways that could harm students.

Many other aspects of the bill will be explored in the days ahead. But here are a few other noteworthy things that are or are not contained in the legislation:

  • Lawmakers omitted from the bill language (like that included in previous versions of the Higher Education Act legislation in recent years) aimed at dictating what is or isn't taught in college classrooms.
  • The legislation calls for studies of how colleges are spending their endowment funds, the educational success (or lack of it) of black men, and bias in standardized tests.
  • Absent is a provision sought by some advocates for students that would once again make students convicted of drug crimes eligible for federal student aid.
  • The bill contains a set of provisions that seek to crack down on diploma mills.


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