If the Higher Education Act bill that House Democrats introduced late last week  did not persuade college leaders that the issue of college prices is and will remain front and center on the federal policy agenda, the House education committee's consideration of the legislation Wednesday should once and for all.
Lawmakers on the Education and Labor Committee did not complete their work on the measure (H.R. 4137 ) Wednesday, though they did pass several amendments and reject or withdraw numerous others (detailed below). But their hours of mostly bipartisan discussion about the legislation included warnings from members of both political parties that colleges will face continuing scrutiny of their spending and tuition prices and could face more federal intrusion into their operations -- beyond the creation of federal "watch lists" that the bill in question would create -- if they don't get the problem under control.
Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.) proposed an amendment that would have required colleges that appear on the "watch lists" to put in place procedures to cut their costs and slash their federal student aid funds by 10 percent a year if they do not meet certain benchmarks. Castle said he believed the committee's bill would do "very good things" on the cost issue, but suggested that "more may need to be done."
Castle ultimately withdrew his amendment, as aides said he had been planning to do all along. But the committee's chairman, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), said he found Castle's amendment to be "very tempting," and acknowledged the Republican lawmaker's point that "we haven't done everything potentially available" to Congress to crack down on rising college costs.
Miller then issued a warning directly to college officials: "I hope the [higher education] community is listening closely on this," he said, adding that the committee's work on this bill "is not the end of the story."
The issue of college prices and the need for colleges to rein them was raised on and off throughout the hours of debate, offering a rare bit of cohesion to a discussion that was, like the sprawling 747-page bill under consideration, all over the place. (An accounting of what was contained in the original bill can be found here. )
Perhaps the most significant development, which occurred late Wednesday evening after the hearing room had partially cleared out, involved the contentious topic of how student learning outcomes should be assessed in the accreditation process. The bill proposed by committee Democrats last week would give colleges and universities themselves the authority to define how to measure "success with respect to student achievement in relation to the institution's mission." That is in contrast to the Education Department's push during last winter's negotiated rule making session on accreditation to put that authority much more in the hands of the accrediting agencies. The original language in the House bill largely mirrored that in the Higher Education Act bill passed by the Senate  this summer.
Wednesday evening, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) -- acting at the urging of regional and national accreditors, who reportedly felt that the bill's language threatened to undermine their authority -- introduced an amendment to strip the language that empowered each college to define student learning for itself. (Language in the Higher Education Act as it stands now is noncommittal about who has that authority.) With virtually no discussion, and a promise to bring forward replacement language in the coming days, Miller and the committee's other leaders adopted Andrews's amendment without dissent.
College leaders, who had fought the Education Department's push, said they were blindsided by the Andrews amendment. They were furious, saying the shift would open the door to federal officials renewing their effort to compel to force colleges to measure and report more quantitative data about their success in educating students. The turnabout revealed anew a rift between accreditors and college leaders  that surfaced during the accreditation negotiations.
"I'm shocked at the stupidity of the accreditors in opening up an issue that had been settled in a positive way," said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. Matt Owens, assistant director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities, said the change -- should it stand -- could be a deal breaker. "Removal of the provision seriously jeopardizes our ability to support the bill," Owens said.
The panel considered several other amendments related to accreditation as well. It adopted one amendment that would require accrediting agencies to "respect" the missions of religiously affiliated institutions, which several civil rights groups opposed because they said it would make it easier for such institutions to discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation. It also embraced a proposal, offered by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), that would allow the minority party in Congress to appoint some of the new members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the panel that reviews accreditors and that the Higher Education Act renewal bill would reconfigure. (Currently the education secretary appoints all 15 members; the original House bill would give the Senate, the House and the Education Department five appointees each, while Hoekstra's measure would give the Senate and House six each, with three appointed by each party.)
Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wisc.) withdrew an amendment that would have allowed colleges, once they had been accredited by a federally recognized agency, to opt out of the re-accreditation process by submitting a slew of information about its performance and fiscal and other health to the federal government. (The Petri amendment was strikingly similar to proposals that have been made  by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, whose president, Anne D. Neal, happens to be married to the Congressman and a member of the Education Department's accreditation advisory committee.) Another withdrawn amendment related to accreditation would have ended a requirement that accrediting agencies get approval from the U.S. Education Department when they seek to begin reviewing distance learning institutions.
In other areas, the House panel adopted amendments that would:
- Bar the Education Department from developing or implementing a federal "unit records" database, which would track information about students from elementary and secondary school through their entry into the work force. Many states have such systems, but private colleges (and many Republican lawmakers) have opposed the development of a national system, mostly on privacy grounds.
- Create a new assistant secretary position in the U.S. Education Department to oversee international education.
- Ease in several ways the requirements of a federal law that forces for-profit colleges to garner at least 10 percent of their revenues from sources other than the federal student aid programs. One change would allow the institutions to count institutional scholarships, or tuition discounts, in the 10 percent total; another would soften the potential penalties violators can face.
- Change how the Education Department calculates the "cohort" default rate for student loans.
Numerous other amendments were rejected or withdrawn by their authors. Some of those amendments would have:
- Required colleges that participate in the federal direct student loan program to process loans for students through banks or other lenders in the guaranteed loan program.
- Expressed the sense of Congress that students should not have their free speech rights infringed by faculty members or fellow students -- a watered-down version, essentially, of David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights.
The House panel will reconvene this morning to vote on a handful of amendments and approval of the overall bill.