House Panel Approves Major Student-Aid Revision
WASHINGTON The House Postsecondary Education Subcommittee last week approved a wide-ranging bill that would rewrite the laws governing federal higher-education programs, including provisions to expand federal grant programs and make direct loans to students.
The bill was passed by a voice vote after four days of debate that left the most contentious issues to be decided when the full Education and Labor Committee takes up the bill, which would reauthorize the Higher Education Act.
The subcommittee defeated, along party lines, an amendment to strike a provision establishing entitlement status for Pell Grants. No amendments were offered on a proposal to scrap the Guaranteed Student Loan program to make way for the federal government to provide loans directly to students, but Republicans pledged to revisit both issues at the full-committee level.
Some observers said they may have some Democratic support on the direct-loan issue. An aide to Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the full committee as well as the subcommittee, acknowledged late last week that all committee Democrats "aren't enthusiastic about" the direct-loan plan.
The aide said the full panel might take up the bill as early as next week. Meanwhile, although refusing to disclose details of the Senate's H.E.A. reauthorization bill, Senate aides said tentative dates have been set for subcommittee and committee action in that chamber later this month.
Costly Entitlement? Representative Tom Coleman of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee, said the cost of the bill's Pell Grant revisions--an estimated $11.7 billion in the first year, compared with the $5.4 billion appropriated for this fiscal year--would be prohibitive.
In addition to giving the grants entitlement status, the bill approved by the subcommittee would expand eligibility to students with annual family incomes of up to $49,000 and would increase the amount of the maximum award, from $2,400 to $4,500.
Echoing the concerns of the Bush Administration, Mr. Coleman said that making Pell Grants an entitlement would encourage the creation of other entitlements. He also noted that it would give authority over the program to the Budget Committee, "because we're going to have to rejigger [the eligibility requirements] so it will conform to the confines of the budget at the time."
Although the Administration has not "used the V-word, veto," Mr. Coleman said, President Bush will veto the bill if it contains the provision. But Chairman Ford argued that making the grant an entitlement-meaning that the government would be required to make money available to every qualified applicant--was necessary to restore the purchasing power of the grant and to redress the balance between grants and loans in federal student-aid programs.
"We have created a new indentured class in the United States: the indebted student," Mr. Ford said.
The chairman noted that the bill would not go into effect until fiscal year 1994. He predicted that the Congress will have reassessed the 1990 budget pact in the meantime, freeing up additional money for education.
"When we go ahead and break the budget agreement... we're going to see a lot of changes around here," Mr. Ford said. "The walls between defense and domestic spending will come down."
Differences on Direct Loans
After the postsecondary subcommittee voted 17 to 9 to reject the amendment offered by Mr. Coleman that would have struck the entitlement provision, the ranking Republican indicated that he would work over the next two weeks to head off the direct-loan proposal and would offer any amendments to that end before the full committee.
In an interview, Mr. Coleman said the implementation of a direct-loan system should be preceded by a pilot program showing that it works.
Speaking after the markup, Mr. Ford acknowledged the Administration's opposition to direct loans, but said there might still be room to negotiate.
"I'm willing to compromise to any degree that would help us reach a consensus," he said.
In other action, the subcommittee approved amendments to the reauthorization bill that would: . Require the Education Department to develop a national studentloan database; . Amend "ability to benefit" rules by allowing states with open-admissions programs to waive an existing testing requirement for students without high-school diplomas if the states provide counseling and other support services; and . Add a grant program that would fund development by states of alternative routes to teacher certification, a proposal the Administration favors.
Vol. 11, Issue 07, Page 21