College & Workforce Readiness

Congress Notes Shifting Trends In Higher Education

By Sean Cavanagh — March 17, 2004 4 min read
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A growing chorus of lawmakers is saying that the federal government needs to do more to help nontraditional college students—such as those who are working or raising families while taking classes—pay the costs of a higher education.

Those efforts, members of Congress say, are needed not only to help low- and middle-income undergraduates and their families, but also to ensure that the nation produces enough highly skilled workers to fill jobs in the future economy.

As they move ahead with their reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, lawmakers are considering such changes as allowing Pell Grant recipients to receive their awards year-round, rather than once each semester. There has also been discussion of eliminating or modifying the requirement known as the 50-percent rule, which bars institutions that provide more than half their courses through distance education from offering federal financial aid.

Those topics emerged in recent weeks at a series of House and Senate hearings, where leaders of two- and four-year colleges discussed the changing profile of their incoming students.

“The semester system is dying,” James C. Votruba, the president of Northern Kentucky University, a four-year institution in Highland Heights, Ky., said at a March 4 hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “We’re serving people where and when they want to be served.”

Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has introduced legislation that would compel the Department of Education to run a demonstration project in which certain colleges would allow students to receive Pell Grants year-round.

Rep. Miller’s bill would require the department to allow as many as 200 higher education institutions to participate in the year-round Pell Grant experiment if those schools met certain requirements.

Pell Grants are typically distributed twice per school year, with a maximum yearly award of $4,050. Backers of year-round Pell Grant distribution say that while it would allow students to collect more than $4,050 during a calendar year, it would also allow those who were taking summer classes to graduate more quickly.

Helping on Jobs

Last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, told the Senate education committee that he, too, wanted to explore the idea of a year-round Pell.

“Colleges are changing their traditional schedules because their customers are not traditional,” he said on March 9.

Like other lawmakers, Sen. Alexander argued that helping students reach college and pay for it was a long-term economic issue. Along with supporting scientific research, sustaining strong federal college loan and grant programs is the “surest plan for good new jobs in America,” he said. “Higher education is America’s secret weapon for job growth.”

Last week, lawmakers heard another Washington voice weigh in on the economic impact of education. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan on March 11 told members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee that the United States could not prosper in the global economy without producing more highly skilled workers who were capable of moving into demanding jobs and producing business innovations.

Mr. Greenspan mostly deflected lawmakers’ inquiries for his opinions on specific federal programs, such as the No Child Left Behind law. Instead, he focused largely on American secondary schools, which he said were falling behind those in other nations, particularly in mathematics and science.

“I can’t see how we can move forward in this economy without having the right people,” Mr. Greenspan told the committee. “Our student body has to get ever more skilled.”

“The purpose of education is to allow people to move up [to jobs requiring high skill] as quickly as possible...,” he added. "[T]here’s no alternative to teaching people.”

Rep. Robert D. Andrews, a Democrat from New Jersey, asked the Fed chairman about the feasibility of doubling the maximum Pell grant if Congress eliminated the piece of the Bush administration’s recent tax cuts that went to the wealthiest Americans. Mr. Greenspan declined to take a firm position.

Financial aid issues sit near the top of Congress’ agenda for revamping the Higher Education Act. College costs are rising quickly, leading to fears that academically qualified, low-income students are being priced out of postsecondary schools.

At the same time, there are indications that a college education is becoming more essential for landing a good job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupations requiring postsecondary vocational training or a college degree accounted for 29 percent of all jobs in 2000. Those jobs, however, will account for 42 percent of the projected job growth between 2000 and 2010, according to the BLS.

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