If, after nearly four years of work, Congress finally enacts legislation to renew the Higher Education Act this year -- and certainly if it does not -- the bill introduced Thursday by Republicans on the House of Representatives education committee may have been but a blip on the radar screen. At the very least, though, the GOP measure unveiled Thursday  has to be seen as signaling what Republicans will emphasize as they seek to shape the final legislation.
The 400-plus-page bill was made public only late in the day, and college lobbyists and others were poring over the legislation looking for surprises (pleasant, rude or otherwise) last evening. Much of the bill echoes ideas that Republicans have put forward in previous versions of the Higher Education Act legislation, such as provisions that would publicly embarrass colleges that raise tuition significantly and repeatedly. But there are also some new things, including language to repeal the auction of federal loans for parents that Congress approved as part of the education budget bill that President Bush signed last month.
Among other thing, the bill introduced by Republican leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee, Reps. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.) and Ric Keller (R-Fla.), would:
- Authorize a maximum Pell Grant of $6,000 and allow recipients to receive Pell Grants year-round.
- Reduce interest rates for parent and graduate loans in the guaranteed student loan program to 7.9 percent, the same as the rate for such loans offered through the competing direct loan program, a change pushed by lenders to “level the playing field” in response to a change made by Congress (mistakenly) in 2005.
- Eliminate what McKeon and Keller called the “untested” auction scheme that Congress enacted in budget reconciliation legislation, which the lawmakers said would “strip parent borrowers of the right to choose a lender.”
- Embrace a proposal that would require the education secretary to annually identify (and publicly embarrass) colleges that receive the most notices of copyright violations through “peer to peer” file sharing on campus networks. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had sought to attach a similar plan  to the Senate’s version of the Higher Education Act legislation in July, but he withdrew the proposal amid significant opposition from colleges.
- Adopt a “single definition” of “institution of higher education”  that would give for-profit colleges access to some pools of federal education money from which they are currently excluded. The Republican bill would also further soften provisions aimed at ensuring that colleges (especially commercial ones) don't generate virtually all of their revenues from federal student aid, which the GOP lawmakers said unfairly jeopardize financial aid for low-income and nontraditional students.
- Increase the limits on the amount of federal loans that a student can borrow, a proposal generally favored by private colleges but opposed by some advocates for students who worry about excessive debt burdens.
- Put in place a series of restrictions the behavior of and relationships between colleges and lenders.
McKeon said the legislation, which was introduced along with a companion measure to renew federal job training programs  under the Workforce Investment Act, would “go a long way toward ensuring American competitiveness now and into the future.”
Added Keller: “The agenda we’ve introduced provides common-sense reforms that are long overdue. Our plans are good news for the workforce and good news for families making important choices about higher education. Our comprehensive approach recognizes the fact that American competitiveness is dependent upon creative ideas in education and job training initiatives.”
A spokeswoman for Democrats on the House education panel said they planned to extend the Higher Education Act this year (following on legislation to rein in student loan abuses and provide billions in additional aid for students) and said they would seek “strategies for reining in increases in college tuition,” among other things. “We are glad to see that Rep. McKeon is willing to work with us and hope he will join us in our ongoing efforts to make college more affordable and accessible and to bolster our economic competitiveness,” said the spokeswoman, Rachel Racusen.
College lobbyists, meanwhile, said they found areas of promise and peril in the Republican bill.
“Many of the ideas in the bill merit consideration while others would harm institutions and undermine their ability to provide a high-quality education to students,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “Ironically, as drafted the legislation would wrap institutions in an amazing amount of new federal red tape and, at the same time, order the Secretary of Education to study ways to reduce overregulation. We will work with Mr. McKeon and Mr. Keller to address these issues in a way that will not impose extraordinary compliance costs on institutions or put government bureaucrats in charge of campus academic programs.”