Higher Education Act Awaits Lawmakers' Attention

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Leveling charges of inflated tuition prices and slipshod performance at colleges, federal lawmakers have vowed to bring reforms to the nation's postsecondary campuses that would likely touch thousands of high school students and aspiring classroom teachers.

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Read the accompanying text, "Borrowing, Spending, Teaching."

The potential changes are coming as part of Congress' reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the main law governing the flow of billions of dollars of federal aid to higher education institutions. Federal lawmakers' work to revise the law will continue into next year, the second of the current two- year session of Congress.

So far, the first such review of the higher education law in six years has produced several bills aimed at reining in college costs and making those institutions more accessible. It has also wrought acrimony, as Republicans and Democrats have offered contrasting views of what is causing tuition increases and of how to ease the financial burden on families.

Yet the latest reauthorization also has reflected the urgent needs of another constituency: K-12 education. The demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, with its fast-approaching mandate for schools to have in place "highly qualified" teachers, have provided momentum for several bills in Congress.

One GOP-sponsored proposal calls for new accountability provisions that would impose stricter mandates on states and teacher colleges in reporting teacher-candidates' passing rates on certification exams. The changes would build on accountability measures adopted during the last during the last HEA reauthorization, in 1998, which promoted higher standards for aspiring instructors and the institutions that train them, through new requirements and the re-channeling of federal grants.

This year's bill, sponsored by Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., also would use the federal grant process to nurture new teacher-preparation programs and develop ways to encourage more minority students to enter the profession.

"One of the most important issues in our schools is the quality of the teaching," said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee in an interview. "If we're going to succeed with No Child Left Behind, we need to do more to prepare our teachers of tomorrow."

Rep. Gingrey's was one of the few reauthorization bills to make relatively quick progress. It passed the House July 9 with an unusual show of bipartisan backing.

"It's terribly important," Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said about congressional efforts to produce high-quality teachers. The ranking minority member on the House education committee has been one of the most active Democrats during the HEA reauthorization.

"We know we're in a crunch under No Child Left Behind, and we're going to have more retirements in teaching in the coming years," Mr. Miller said.

While the House has held numerous hearings on the higher education law and passed several bills that could become part of the revised higher education law, the Senate has barely waded into reauthorization, leading several observers to question whether the process will be complete even by the end of 2004.

Seeking Top Teachers

Rep. Gingrey's bill would revise several elements of teacher preparation. Currently, colleges of education are required to report the passing rates on teacher-certification tests only for students who have completed their entire academic programs. That approach, lawmakers contend, leaves the reporting process open to manipulation, rather than encouraging schools to turn out qualified instructors.

The bill would require that all students who have completed at least half of their teacher-preparation coursework be included in the reported test results. Supporters say that provision pushes schools to work harder to train their students and encourage them to complete their academic programs.

The measure also would require states to collect and compare more precise information from teachers' colleges about passing scores on certification tests, by collecting raw scores, rather than simply averages.

Michelle M. Buehlmann, a program manager on federal relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said she supported much of Mr. Gingrey's proposal. But she also seeks changes so that states and teacher colleges would be allowed to distinguish between the test scores of students who had actually completed their programs and those who had quit early and were not taught all of the material.

"We need data. We need to improve. This [approach] doesn't give that to us," said Ms. Buehlmann, whose Washington organization represents 430 institutions that turn out some 72,000 newly certified teachers annually.

She hopes lawmakers consider legislation that would require states and teacher colleges to take stronger steps to align curricula with the testing requirements precollegiate students face under the No Child Left Behind law.

"The job is on all of us to make it work," Ms. Buehlmann said. When academic reforms fail, she said, it is because state and federal lawmakers "don't align the whole system."

Both Democrats and Republicans also have backed changes to federal student-loan programs aimed at attracting new K-12 teachers.

One such plan, introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., would increase the amount of federal loan forgiveness, from $5,000 to $17,500, available to teachers who agreed to work in high-demand subjects such as mathematics, science, and special education, in Title I schools for at least five years. That bill, along with a separate measure that would offer teacher-college faculty members priority access to federal scholarship money, passed the House on July 9.

Prices Climbing

The pending reauthorization of the HEA has given Congress the opportunity to tackle another issue affecting precollegiate students: the rising cost of college.

In recent years, reams of studies have documented steady-to-sharp increases in tuition at public and private colleges, and the ever-larger chunk of family incomes swallowed by those costs. Some studies have blamed the increases on cuts in state aid, while others have pointed to poor fiscal planning on the part of state officials and campus administrators.

For months, congressional Republicans have made it clear they believe colleges and universities have overspent and passed costs on to students. Instead of paring expenses, many schools have splurged, those lawmakers contend, in adding programs and pouring cash into cosmetic enhancements of their campuses.

"When you look at what a lot of universities are doing to attract students, you scratch your head," said Rep. Boehner, who derided expenditures on "rock-climbing walls and recreation centers."

Encouraging colleges to think more frugally is part of the goal behind a controversial bill sponsored by another influential Republican, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California. His proposal would strip federal financial aid from institutions that continued to raise tuition by more than twice the rate of inflation.

While that plan has angered college officials, Rep. McKeon noted that his proposal had been softened significantly since he first announced it. Potential penalties for noncompliant colleges would not take hold until 2011.

"Some of the schools have just criticized [the bill], telling us, 'We're doing a great job. Just keep sending us more money,'" Mr. McKeon said in an interview. "That's not going to work."

In 2003-04, average tuition at public universities rose by 13 percent, from $4,115 to $4,694, the biggest annual jump in at least three decades, according to the College Board. Over time, the financial burden on poorer families has become especially great, data show. A quarter-century ago, tuition and fees at a public college made up 41 percent of an average low-income family's household income. Today it swallows 71 percent, according to College Board estimates.

Higher education leaders note, however, that a majority of the nation's full-time undergraduates still pay annual tuition of less than $8,000.

"We're obsessed with the elites, but the reality is, it's a very competitive market," said Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a research organization in Washington. "There's an inclination to ask, 'What does it cost at Stanford, or Williams, or Harvard?'—not realizing that many students are going to Central Connecticut State University."

In contrast to Rep. McKeon's approach, legislation offered by House and Senate Democrats would restrict tuition increases with a different kind of leash.

A Senate proposal sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., would require state governments to maintain funding for higher education at 90 percent of the previous year's level, or lose out on increases in federal financial aid called for in the bill.

Joni E. Finney, the vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, in San Jose, Calif., did not favor either the Democratic or Republican cost-control ideas. But she said both states and higher education institutions need to do a better job of budgeting over time, rather than overspending during good times and axing services during lean years, such as now.

"I think McKeon understands that probably the only way to get at affordability in this country is to get at the costs of higher education," Ms. Finney said. "I think he's hit a soft spot."

Federal lawmakers are also seeking to keep college affordable by changing the rules of student borrowing. Sen. Kennedy's bill, for instance, would change lending laws to allow students to refinance their loans after they had consolidated them. Each year, the federal government provides a total of roughly $67 billion in student aid for college, about 70 percent of the total financial help those borrowers receive, according to the Department of Education.

Democrats also have pushed for increases in funding for Pell Grants, the major federal grant program for needy college students. The issue has sparked repeated partisan spats in Congress in recent years.

One Democratic-backed House bill would provide additional funding through Pell Grants—called "Pell Plus Grants"—to schools that kept tuition increases at modest levels. Democrats also have pushed to halt a regulatory change proposed by the Bush administration they claim would strip 84,000 students of Pell Grant eligibility. During budget negotiations late last month, both parties tentatively agreed to suspend the implementation of those rules, until they had been studied further.

Senate Outlook

While the House has delved into several HEA reauthorization proposals, the Senate's agenda for the reauthorization is uncertain.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said he did not expect the panel, given its need to deal with the renewal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other matters, to consider marking up specific higher education legislation before February.

But he voiced reservations about Democratic proposals to mandate state spending on higher education.

"I believe there are other, less prescriptive ways to address the alarming rise in tuition levels," Sen. Gregg said in a statement to Education Week. He said he would consider Rep. McKeon's idea, and others, in deciding what role, if any, the federal government has in regulating prices.

While the teacher education provisions of the reauthorization have moved quickly in Congress, "it's not on the same scale as student aid," Mr. Merisotis said."The student-aid stuff basically overwhelms everything else," he said, "just by the size and scope of it."

Vol. 23, Issue 14, Pages 21, 24

Published in Print: December 3, 2003, as Higher Education Act Awaits Lawmakers' Attention
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