Democrats Unveil Higher Ed. Reauthorization Plan

By Sean Cavanagh — October 08, 2003 4 min read
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House Democrats have made their first major thrust in the battle over reauthorization of the Higher Education Act by unveiling a plan that emphasizes college affordability and tries to distinguish their agenda from that of the Republican majority.

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See the accompanying chart, “Renewing the Higher Education Act.”

A measure proposed by Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, would increase postsecondary students’ ability to consolidate loans and reduce their fees on federal financial aid.

That proposal, called the College Opportunity for All Act, would also raise the maximum Pell Grant award for low-income borrowers to $11,600 a year by 2011. The neediest students received top awards of $4,050 in fiscal 2003, an amount that student-aid advocates say has not kept pace with college costs.

A few pieces of Rep. Miller’s plan, announced on Sept. 25, closely mirror some GOP proposals. Yet the California Democrat also drew a distinction between his party’s objectives and those floated so far by House Republicans, who have vowed to do more to compel the nations’ colleges and universities to control fast-rising tuition prices.

Republican proposals would lead to “even more tuition increases for students, and a weakening of our higher education system,” Rep. Miller said in a statement. “We have to work with the states, who are forcing tuition increases because of education cutbacks, to craft a solution that brings tuition costs down.”

That criticism was an apparent allusion to a proposal issued earlier this year by Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., that would penalize colleges that raised tuition by more than 2½ times the rate of inflation. Colleges exceeding that failed to reduce those hikes within a year could face the loss of their eligibility for federal financial assistance.

That GOP plan has not yet been formally introduced, but it seems to reflect the frustration voiced by several Republicans during reauthorization hearings earlier this year that postsecondary institutions were doing too little to control prices or turn out qualified graduates in teaching and other professions, despite receiving billions of dollars a year in federal aid.

Rep. Miller, however, suggested that overly strict price controls could hurt students if colleges and universities, many of which are already reeling from state budget cuts, were punished financially.

One change proposed by Rep. Miller would repeal a federal law that bars students who borrow from a single lender from refinancing their college loans through other companies. Known as the “single-lender rule,” the provision prevents students from seeking lower-cost loans, consumer advocates say.

Student Savings

A second provision in the Miller bill would eliminate origination fees when student borrowers take out their loans. Those fees, which are up to 3 percent of the amount borrowed, can cost a student with $17,000 in federal student debt about $500.

Even a few hundred dollars worth of savings would be significant for many students, said Chris Simmons, the assistant director of government relations for the American Council on Education.

“We’d rather you had that extra $500 for expenses,” said Mr. Simmons, whose Washington research and policy organization represents 1,800 colleges and universities nationwide, and supports the change.

Rep. Miller’s legislation would also establish “Centers of Excellence at Minority Serving Institutions,” creating competitive grants for qualified minority colleges and universities seeking to improve teacher quality and preparation. Another provision would direct the Department of Education to launch a pilot program to award Pell Grants year round—with amounts above the current maximum of $4,050—for students trying to finish school ahead of schedule.

So far, House lawmakers have taken the lead on higher education reauthorization in Congress, with the Senate not yet having held any hearings on the topic. Federal lawmakers are reauthorizing the higher education act, which expires next year, for the first time since 1998.

One proposal that emerged from the GOP side earlier this year is aimed at improving teacher quality. A bill sponsored by Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., would set stricter requirements on states and teacher-preparation programs for reporting their graduates’ passing rates on teacher-certification tests. The measure would also tie federal grant money to states’ showing how their teaching programs would bring more minority candidates to teaching. (“GOP Bill Aims to Produce Better-Qualified Teachers,” June 4, 2003.)

Alexa Marrero, a GOP spokeswoman for the House education committee, said her party shared the Democrats’ commitment to making college more affordable for students from low- and middle-income families. She noted that Republicans, like Democrats, were likely to support repealing the single-lender rule.

But she faulted the Democrats’ other plans, contending that they were likely to heap new costs of “tens of billions of dollars, at least” on taxpayers, or force cuts to other federal programs, if enacted.

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