It is a Washington tradition that, at the point when it becomes clear that a piece of legislation is on its way to passage, Congressional supporters praise the measure as enormously important (and, usually, each other for their hard work and, where appropriate, for their mutual collaboration). Hand shaking and back slapping often ensue.
Members of a House-Senate panel engaged in a little of that Tuesday night as they met at a hastily called session to put the finishing touches on legislation to renew the Higher Education Act. But given the fact that the bill has been seven years in the making, that at 1,158 pages it has the feel of a conglomeration that includes everything but the kitchen sink ("Better start reading," one U.S. representative joked to a colleague as he looked at the foot-high stack of paper in front of him), and that the legislation has lukewarm support at best among most parties in and around higher education, the atmosphere seemed to be as much one of relief as of celebration.
"The road to higher education reform has been a long one," Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon of California, the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in recalling work he did in 2001 that helped set the stage for this legislation. "I'm pleased to be here -- far too many years later -- on the cusp of a bipartisan reauthorization."
It seemed at times that the cusp might never come, as the legislation has survived three separate Congresses (including a turnover from Republican to Democratic control) and a total of 13 short-term extensions. But now, a full decade after the last renewal of the Higher Education Act (which is supposed to be extended every five years), the measure is finally poised to become law. Both the Senate and the House are expected to vote on it Thursday, before Congress leaves town for its August recess, and it could be on President Bush's desk soon after.
To get to Tuesday's denouement, which resulted in a 40-4 vote to approve the legislation, McKeon and a small cast of key negotiators -- including his Democratic counterpart on the House panel, Rep. George Miller of California; Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was standing in for the ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, along with their staffs -- had worked through a handful of remaining divisive issues  in the bill in the last several days.
The last to fall, and the only one that remained to be resolved by the several dozen members of Congress at Tuesday night's meeting, was the question of whether Congress should withhold federal funds from states that fail to maintain their levels of spending  on higher education. Under the proposal, advanced by Miller and Rep. John F. Tierney of Massachusetts, states that did not maintain the minimum spending levels would have forfeited money provided through the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership , a need-based aid program that matches state-contributed funds.
The provision had the backing of many public university presidents,  who argued that Congress should do something to ensure that states do not keep raising tuitions and using ever-increasing funds from federal student aid programs to replace money the states themselves might dedicate to support colleges and students.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and former U.S. education secretary, mounted a vigorous challenge to the "maintenance of effort" proposal, which he (as a former governor of Tennessee) characterized as an inappropriate attempt by Congress to dictate how states spend their money. Alexander's opposition was among the factors that seemed to imperil Congress's chances of reaching agreement on the bill this fall.
On Tuesday evening, members of the conference committee had a chance to choose between a watered-down version of Tierney's original proposal (the replacement would deny states that cut college funding a chance to compete for money from a new state challenge grant program, which might never be funded) and an Alexander alternative that would impose that restriction only if a state received its full allotment of federal money under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act -- which would never happen, Alexander suggested, because Congress so frequently imposes requirements on states and then fails to provide the money to carry them out.
The senators on the conference panel adopted Tierney's proposal and rejected Alexander's largely on party lines, and that vote cleared the way for the 40-4 vote on the entire Higher Education Act bill.
The legislation approved Tuesday 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. The year-round Pell Grant is one of the most widely celebrated features of the bill.
- Require significantly more reporting by colleges about their own costs and the prices they charge to students, part of a larger effort in the legislation to hold colleges accountable and make their operations more transparent to the public.
- Give the Education Department significantly more authority to regulate private student loans, as part of a broad set of provisions -- prompted by last year’s 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.
- Urge colleges to craft plans for giving their students legal ways to download movies and music "to the extent practicable," and to explore technologies to stop illegal peer to peer file sharing.
- Bar the U.S. Education Department from issuing regulations (governing higher education accreditation) designed to ensure that colleges are measuring student learning outcomes, a provision staunchly opposed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. It would also scuttle the committee that advises the Education Department on accreditation -- which has been enveloped in controversy for the last two years  -- and reconfigure it so its members are appointed by both houses of Congress as well as the education secretary.
- 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.
- Mandate that textbook publishers expand the information they provide to faculty members about pricing and changes from past editions, and that colleges put information about required books in their course schedules to help students shop for books more cost effectively, among other provisions aimed at easing textbook prices.
- Expand the reach of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, rather than kill the body, as the House version of the bill would have done.
- Create a total of more than 60 new programs.
- Ease in several ways the requirement that colleges (especially for-profit institutions) derive at least 10 percent of their revenues from sources other than federal financial aid.
- Expand funds for graduate programs at historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and, for the first time, colleges that serve large numbers of African American students.
- Crack down on diploma mills by directing the Education Department to publish lists of accredited institutions and accreditation agencies, among other things.
- 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.
- Toughen standards for teacher education programs.
- Strengthen educational programs for students with disabilities.
While they favor some elements of the legislation, most of the Washington associations that represent groups of colleges dislike more than they like about the bill because they view it as intrusive and laden with regulatory burdens, and are unlikely to throw their support behind the measure. (The Career College Association, which represents for-profit colleges, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities are likeliest to support the legislation.)
The other groups will spend much of the next day or two carefully wording letters that neither badmouth the legislation (and by extension those members of Congress who crafted it) nor endorse it.