HEA: A Huge, Exacting Accountability Bill

As Congress finally passes the sweeping higher education legislation, 5 years late, views on its significance and potential impact vary widely.
August 1, 2008

If a bill's impact or importance were measured by its length or the amount of time Congress spent working on it, the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HR 4137) would be one for the ages. At more than 1,150 pages, the bill is about 20 times longer than the Higher Education Act of 1965 that it modifies, creating 64 new programs and touching on issues as diverse as the availability of Pell Grants and illegal downloading of digital music and video. And the legislation, which finally passed both the House and the Senate by overwhelmingly margins on Thursday, has been in discussion on Capitol Hill, in one form or another, for most of this decade. It is five years overdue.

Of course, neither length nor gestation period matters a whit in assessing the significance or quality of a piece of legislation. What counts is how much the measure does to fix the problems or improve the situation it is designed to address, and that, in many ways, cannot be meaningfully gauged until the bill has become law and had a chance to play out for a few years.

But that shouldn’t (or, in this case, won’t) stop the intrepid journalist from engaging in a little instant analysis. Do the bill’s pros outweigh its cons? Does it attack the major problems facing higher education and the country, and are its solutions likely to make a difference? And does the legislation’s approach represent a change -- positively or negatively -- in the U.S. government’s relationship with higher education, in ways that are likely to affect colleges and students?

It’s no surprise that the legislation’s framers offer a glowingly positive assessment. “Today’s students face daunting obstacles on the path to college, from skyrocketing tuition prices to predatory student lending tactics,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee. “This landmark bipartisan legislation will address these challenges and create a higher education system that is more consumer-friendly, fairer, and easier to navigate.” Combined with the budget reconciliation legislation that Congress passed last year after splitting it off from the Higher Education Act renewal -- the budget measure shifted more than $20 billion in student lender subsidies to bolster grant and loan support for students -- Congress has made it significantly easier for Americans to enroll in and afford college, Miller said.

In their comments about the legislation, Congressional sponsors very much wrapped the bill in the shorthand language that has increasingly become in vogue to use to describe the problems facing higher education today, focusing on “accessibility,” “affordability,” and “accountability.” To expand access and make college more affordable, the bill aims to simplify the process of applying for federal student aid, make Pell Grants available year-round, forgive loans for students who enter high-demand fields, and pressure colleges to keep their prices in check, among other things.

And on the accountability front, the legislation requires colleges to collect and publish a dizzying array of data and information about their textbook prices, student loan policies, and tuition increases, to name just a very few.

Praise and Reservations

Whether college leaders support the bill -- and how enthusiastically -- varies greatly on where they sit. As many of Washington’s higher education associations and student groups weighed in Wednesday and Thursday with letters expressing their views, some, like the Career College Association and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, endorsed the bill rather enthusiastically. Others, like the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and a coalition of student groups, urged support for the bill but with significant reservations.

Four of the six major associations of presidents (plus several other traditional college groups) signed a letter that pointed out pros and cons but purposefully did not take an overall stance on the bill. And at least one major Washington group, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, was silent, seemingly adopting the advice of Thumper’s parents in “Bambi”: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." Officials of the private college group said the legislation had improved enough from earlier iterations that they had decided not to oppose the measure outright.

Most higher education and student groups cited many of the same elements to praise, such as the year-round Pell Grant, the planned simplification of the financial aid process, efforts to cut textbook prices, and the proposed continuation of most existing federal grant and loan programs (some of which, like Perkins Loans and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, the Bush administration has sought to eliminate).

But in other cases, particular pet issues either drove college leaders to support the bill or to withhold their backing. For example, the Jesuit college group was especially enthusiastic about a newly created emergency loan program it pushed for to help institutions (like Loyola University New Orleans, one of its own) recover from natural disasters, and that tipped the scales for it to endorse the HEA legislation. The Career College Association embraced the bill in part because it would ease rules that require colleges (especially for-profit institutions) to derive at least 10 percent of their revenues from sources other than federal financial aid; those very provisions were among the objections raised by the student groups and some higher education leaders.

And Congress's decision to prevent the U.S. education secretary from issuing regulations (governing higher education accreditation) designed to ensure that colleges are measuring student learning outcomes drew praise from groups like the Association of American Universities, but criticism from the U.S. Education Department.

The Broader, Longer Term View

Just as views are divided on the bill's practical implications, so too do college officials and friends and critics of academe have differing perspectives on what the Higher Education Act legislation, in toto, says about the state of public policy on higher education.

The biggest knock against the higher ed bill, probably, is that it is a visionless, unwieldy, sprawling mishmash of new programs and intrusive regulation into areas (such as illegal file sharing and vaccines) that are inappropriate terrain for a bill supposedly about student aid. The every-five-year renewals of the Higher Education Act, like the underlying 1965 law, have historically been about access to college, argues Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy development at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

"This bill is not fundamentally about access," she says. "It is about Congress's idea about how colleges could be better run. I think that's been a lot of the tension: Traditional colleges see the utmost importance of the federal role being focused on access, and on the government's very successful partnership with colleges on ensuring access . This bill is not about a partnership with colleges; it's about Congress mandating its members' ideas on colleges."

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, notes that this Congress has done quite a lot -- "perhaps more than any Congress in a decade" -- for college students, most notably with last year's budget reconciliation measure and this spring's major expansion of veterans' education benefits. The Higher Education Act renewal contributes to that -- but in a less significant way, Hartle says. "I don't think there was a coherent vision behind the bill that says, 'We want to do these three things.' It is really a lot of very specific ideas stapled together."

Even some who agree that the bill is mostly a scattershot compilation of disjointed ideas and programs see some common themes in the bill -- even if they disagree about whether the approaches are entirely welcome ones.

"The issues Congress is focusing on are clearly about more reporting and more transparency by colleges," says Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association. "Higher education has been used, for so long, to hearing how wonderful it is. But at the end of the day, the questions now are about the correlation between federal dollars spent and the return. There is general unhappiness with what the higher education system is producing, and they're not going to blame students or parents. This is all about modifying schools' behavior."

Higher education has brought some of that scrutiny on itself by having been "slow to grasp" how "exasperated the public is by the costs of higher education and the resulting debt loads that are carried by graduates," asserts Constantine D. Curris, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. When Congress, then led by Republicans, began work on the Higher Education Act earlier this decade, lawmakers like Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon of California made a lot of noise about tuition prices, Curris says. "It was basically disregarded by the higher education community who felt like it was part of a Republican agenda rather than the sentiment of the public. One of the surprises of the last couple years was finding key aspects of Buck's bill included in this document and supported by both parties."

College leaders succeeded in fighting more aggressive proposals that might have set specific requirements on colleges' spending, opting instead for significantly more reporting and lists designed to embarrass institutions that raise their tuition the most. Unpleasant as that is, Curris says, it could get worse. "This is a very polarized Congress over all, but on this piece of legislation, we have bipartisan consensus in both houses," he says. "For the higher education community to ignore that raises the risk of additional legislation that may be far more painful than shame lists and burdensome reporting requirements. I personally believe that if we don't respond to the message that is there, we will see, maybe two years from now, significantly more control being exercised by the federal government, possibly even tying it to the provision of money to higher education."

Although some of his peers in Washington's higher education establishment see Congress showing little restraint in its willingness to expand its regulation of higher education, Curris sees a lesson in how the Higher Education Act deals with issues of pricing and student learning outcomes. The bill, he notes, bars the Education Department from taking steps to pressure accreditors on how they assess colleges' performance on student learning -- a step Congress took, in part, Curris asserts, because several college associations (including his) undertook well-publicized efforts to push the issue on their own.

"There was a feeling among the Congress and staff members that looked at what we were doing that, 'Here higher education is trying to be accountable, trying to be transparent,' " he says. "I view that very positively. Congress did not want to intrude in areas where it felt higher education was trying to do the right thing."

Unhappiness From the Other Side

College leaders may be somewhat divided on whether Congress went too far in pushing for changes in higher education. But for those who've been pushing higher education hardest in recent years -- the Education Department and those affiliated with its Commission on the Future of Higher Education -- the Higher Education Act is a disappointment because it did not go far enough.

"While the legislation takes some positive steps forward, it fails to create the necessary reforms in accessibility and affordability, and it falls short on strengthening accountability," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a prepared statement late Thursday after the Senate approved the compromise legislation. "More work can -- and must -- be done to make achievement outcomes more transparent to students and families."

"I think they tweaked a lot of things, but they took small steps when giant steps were needed," says Charles Miller, who headed the secretary's commission. The bill imposes a bevy of new information requirements on colleges -- "some of them pretty onerous," he acknowledges -- but fails to recommend the kind of coordinated information system that the commission recommended. To have a truly useful system of tracking students' progress through higher education, Miller says, "a unit records system" -- which private colleges vehemently opposed, as did some Republican members of Congress -- "has to be part of that."

In addition, "the entire financial aid picture needs serious attention and the small tweaks represented by the HEA and other recent actions by Congress are wholly inadequate for the situation we are facing," Miller says. "What is needed is a full-scale reform and redesign of financial aid: simplification, elimination of inefficient programs and a coherent integration of aid with the broader financing system for higher education."

The question of whether major reforms like the ones Miller envisions raises a more fundamental question: whether a bill as big and broad as the Higher Education Act renewal can continue to be a venue for meaningful public policy on higher education. Given that the bill by its nature has such a sweeping agenda, and that it becomes a magnet for proposals from the increasing numbers of federal lawmakers who are interested in education policy and have their own ideas for what to do, it may be almost inevitable that the Higher Education Act renewal ends up being disjointed rather than full of vision.

"If there are some issues du jour that really are pressing, Congress is increasingly unlikely to say, 'we're going to wait until HEA comes up," says Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. "The Higher Ed Act [reauthorization] may no longer be the definitive policy forum for higher education."


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