Only Minor Rewriting Seen for Higher Ed. Act

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When the country's major higher education law meets the scrutiny of Congress this year, the measure will likely emerge with a tune-up, not a rebuilt engine.

The Higher Education Act, which expires in September, authorizes the federal government's chief college-grant and loan programs and other higher education support. Most college groups say the program is on track.

"The challenge this time around is not to reinvent the wheel, rather it is to fine-tune--to modify," Stanley Ikenberry, the president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, told student-aid officials at a conference here last week.

College and university groups have already surveyed the issues. As a prelude to the reauthorization process, the Department of Education invited comments through last week. And both congressional committees that oversee the bill have already slated reauthorization hearings, which also began last week.

The HEA reauthorization won't take center stage right away, however. President Clinton's budget and tax plans, which are heavy on college-aid strategies, could alter some of the reauthorization plans for the HEA. "Clinton Previews Education Priorities in '98 Budget," in This Week's News.)

As these issues shake out, policymakers are setting tentative time lines to keep the HEA reauthorization on track. David Longanecker, the Education Department's assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said the administration hopes to have its HEA proposal to Congress by late April.

On Capitol Hill, House committee aides expect hearings on the bill through July, with the measure ready to move in early fall. A Senate aide said that while a hearing schedule remains uncertain after this month, senators would like to get a bill out of their committee sometime in the fall.

The Higher Education Act authorizes funding for Pell Grants for needy students, college work-study programs, and two federal student-loan programs.

Together, the programs account for nearly $11 billion in federal spending in the current fiscal year.

During reauthorization, the Education Department will try to keep the debate focused on access to higher education, high standards for student achievement, and simplified program delivery, Mr. Longanecker said.

Since President Clinton's plan for income-tax breaks, included in his budget proposal, will primarily target middle-income families and will be considered first, Mr. Longanecker said that the HEA reauthorization would likely place an emphasis on grant programs for the neediest families.

Direct-Loan Dispute

One issue expected to remain the subject of contention during the reauthorization is the battle between competing loan programs: the traditional system--the $1.7 billion Federal Family Education Loan Program--in which banks and other agencies handle college loans, and the Clinton administration's $544 million program making federal loans directly to students though their colleges and universities. ("Clinton Budget To Include Campaign Proposals," Nov. 20, 1996.)

While the administration says that its direct-lending approach makes getting financial help for college more efficient, Republicans have threatened to limit or cut the program on the grounds that it adds to the federal bureaucracy.

At the meeting here last week, Mark Brenner, an aide to the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said that the Education Department has glossed over lapses in its implementation of the program.

"If they're going to tout it as a better program, they'd better make sure it's a better program," said Mr. Brenner, who has been working on oversight of the direct-lending plan.

As they prepare for a showdown, supporters of both loan plans are calling for program comparability.

The National Direct Student Loan Coalition, an alliance of schools participating in the direct-lending program, says that FFELP lenders discount origination fees and interest rates to some students. Such special benefits should be available to all borrowers, said Phyllis K. Hooyman, the chairman of the group and the director of financial aid for Hope College in Holland, Mich.

On the other hand, the Coalition for Student Loan Reform, a group of nonprofit guarantors and secondary markets involved in the traditional system, has questioned the terms of the direct-lending program's option which allows students to repay loans based on their income. The slower repayment plan could be too costly for students in the long run, said the coalition's executive director, Mark Cannon.

Future Teachers Teacher Education

Beyond college financing, policymakers also have teacher education issues to wrestle with under the HEA, which includes programs dealing with recruiting, retaining, and training educators.

Penelope M. Earley, the senior director for government relations of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, based here, said that higher education leaders would like to see federal programs that help colleges meet state and professional standards for teacher education, work with local school officials on teacher induction programs, and expand recruiting efforts.

In previous reauthorizations, the teacher training portion of the bill has been used as a vehicle for the pet projects of Congress. Because of the patchwork of programs, funding for the line item has lagged in appropriations committees.

This time around, Ms. Earley said, college groups would like to persuade lawmakers to "resist some of the silliness that has made this title meaningless" and instead work on drafting a streamlined, efficient plan for government support for teacher preparation.

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