Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act: Checking the Score at Halftime

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act: Checking the Score at Halftime

Hartle, Terry

The second session of the 108th Congress has recently begun, providing an excellent opportunity to take stock of the progress that Congress has made in reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. So far, the House of Representatives has taken a number of concrete steps toward reauthorization, while the Senate has accomplished little. The Bush administration has remained largely invisible, but has played a significant role behind the scenes in advising members of Congress about specific policy proposals.

None of this is totally surprising. The House almost always moves this legislation forward more quickly than does the upper chamber. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), announced early last year that it would break reauthorization into seven discrete bills and would enact each of the measures separately. The committee hoped that by breaking the large bill into smaller pieces, it could focus more attention on each measure and generate more political consensus to pass the bills.

The committee, along with the full House of Representatives, has approved four of the seven bills-those dealing with student loan cancellations, teacher preparation, graduate education, and international education. With one major exception-international education-these bills have not been controversial. In any event, all passed the House easily.

International education has proven to be a far more controversial part of reauthorization than anyone imagined it would be. Several conservative writers have claimed-in harsh and vitriolic language-that international education activities supported by the federal government are “anti-American” and “anti-Israeli” and have called on Congress to create an advisory committee to ensure a balance of ideological viewpoints. Higher education groups strongly dispute the charges of bias and believe that the Department of Education has no business overseeing what goes on in the classroom. The proposal for an International Education Advisory Committee cleared the House, but the controversy over this particular issue continues to grow. Despite high hopes, the House was unable to move all the legislation forward last year. The proposal from Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) designed to limit tuition increases and mandate federal intervention in the transfer of credit from one institution to another has proven controversial and has not yet been acted upon. Similarly, a bill to loosen some of the restrictions that were put in place a decade ago to curb fraud and abuse in the student loan program has been stalled over concerns that it would reignite the problem it was designed to extinguish.

But most notably, none of the provisions dealing with the federal student aid programs-such as Pell Grants, student loans, campus-based aid, TRIO, GEAR UP, and aid to historically black colleges-have appeared yet, even in draft form. This bill will, of course, be the centerpiece of reauthorization and is likely to be a source of considerable controversy when it is finally released.

Given the delay, most observers now expect that the Education and Workforce Committee will combine the three pieces of legislation (H.R. 3039, H.R. 3311, and the yet-to-be-introduced student aid bill) that it has not approved into a single measure that will be acted upon sometime this spring. As part of this process, we may well see modifications in some of the ideas-such as Mr. McKeon’s college price proposal-that have already proven controversial.

Much Remains to Be Done

The Senate generally moves education legislation at a slower pace than the House, and the 2004 reauthorization effort is no exception. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) did hold two higher education hearings last fall, one on college costs and one devoted to “intellectual diversity” in the classroom. It plans to hold at least one more hearing-on accrcditation-although others, on issues such as simplifying the financial aid application, are likely.

Both Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and HELP Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH) have indicated that they expect to have higher education reauthorization on the Senate floor by March 22, an exceptionally ambitious timetable that no one (well, no one outside the Frist and Gregg offices) expects the Senate to meet.

Nor has the White House yet weighed in on reauthorization. Once again, this is not a big surprise. Preparing a set of coherent and comprehensive reauthorization proposals takes several years and every administration finds it a daunting task. The Bush administration is likely to find this task particularly difficult because its education efforts largely start and stop with the implementation of No Child Left Behind.

But in its fiscal year 2005 budget, the administration did, for the first time, lay out some ideas that it hopes to pursue as part of reauthorization. Most notably, the administration indicated that it plans to seek a modest increase in federal student loan limits for first-year borrowers. The projected increase is small-just $375-but many student aid advocates believe such an increase is necessary and regard this as an important and essential first step. In addition, the White House has indicated that it wants to revise the formula used to distribute campus-based student aid (such as the federal work-study funds) to colleges.

Uncertainty Ahead

The bottom line is that because so little was accomplished last year, it will all be done between now and the November elections. It would be a tall order under the best of circumstances, and this year will not be the best of circumstances. Start with the federal budget deficit. In its 2005 budget proposal, the administration estimated that the federal government deficit would total $521 billion. To help keep the deficit from expanding further, the president indicated that he would hold discretionary spending-including education-to an increase of less than 1 percent. For now, the budget deficit drives policy discussions in Washington and such a huge number-with little realistic chance of reducing it anytime soon-is sure to limit the opportunities to expand access to student aid or to make federal programs more generous. It can still be done, of course, but it will be exponentially more difficult than would be the case if the deficit were more modest.

In addition, this is a presidential election year and political considerations-always front and center in this town-are even more apparent. Both parties will use every legislative proposal possible to enhance their chances to capture the White House and gain seats in the House and Senate. Proposals that resonate with all voters (think “limiting college tuition increases”) or with a particular segment of voters (such as “intellectual diversity” or legacy preferences in admissions) may well get more attention than they would otherwise. Like the deficit, this is not an exceptional development, but it does add another overarching element to reauthorization.

Adding even more uncertainty to the coming year is the growing possibility that Congress may not even finish reauthorization this year. Every presidential election year reduces the number of days that Congress meets, in order to accommodate primary elections, the political conventions, and the desire to adjourn early enough in the fall to campaign before the November election. Coupling a short legislative year with a huge budget deficit and a complex, multifaceted piece of legislation simply means that the work might not get done.

If this occurs, not much happens. Congress will still fund the programs, students will still get federal aid, and Washington bureaucrats will still regulate colleges. Perhaps the only significant outcome if Congress does not finish reauthorization is that the process will start all over-from the beginning-next year. It may not be a fate worse than death, but to those who spend their professional lives wrestling over the nuances of legislative language, it’s close. As a result, it may also be the strongest motivation to finish the task this year.

TERRY HARTLE is senior vice president at the American Council on Education.

Copyright American Council on Education Winter 2004

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