Congress to find middle ground in Higher Education Act

Jackie Valley

The law regulating higher education in the United States will be revamped by the end of April — the deadline for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Lawmakers have until April 30 to mend differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, which calls for greater cost transparency and an increase in Pell Grant amounts.

The Senate granted lawmakers a one-month extension because the two chambers had not reached an agreement before Congress’ two-week recess began March 17.

Since the passage of the Senate bill in July and the House bill in February, higher education officials and state legislatures have been lobbying for changes to the current language in the two bills.

The National Governors Association sent a letter to Sen. Ted Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, opposing the proposed “Maintenance of Effort” provision in the House bill that would penalize states for giving less money to higher education.

Pat Myers, director of government relations, said the provision worries state legislatures and university officials because it does not factor in extenuating circumstances, such as a huge increase in state aid the previous year.

“What a number of us are worried about is that they’ll (state legislatures) just be very careful about giving increases,” she said.

David Creamer, senior vice president for administration, said universities support cost transparency — clear identification of tuition and fees — but not the Senate-proposed “watch lists” that target universities with tuition spikes.

Creamer said placing universities on “watch lists” may negatively impact students currently enrolled at those institutions.

“Generally, we encourage politicians and lawmakers to help protect consumers,” he said. “But, there are times when these particular consumer protections end up hurting the consumer.”

Even so, Creamer said the university remains supportive of measures to help contain college costs — specifically increases for Pell Grants.

The House version of the bill stands to increase the maximum Pell Grant award to $9,000 per school year. The maximum Pell Grant award for the 2008-2009 school year is $5,400.ÿ

Myers, a member of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, said a boost in Pell Grants combined with an increase in state financial aid and private fundraising would be “ideal for all of us.”

“We would love to lower tuition if we had the support to do it,” she said.

Still, President Lester Lefton said as a whole, “the federal government is falling way behind in supporting higher education.”

“There is so much more that could and should be done to make higher education more affordable,” he said.

Myers said the proposed simplification of the FAFSA form is another recommendation deemed positive by the higher education community — a process she calls “too cumbersome” now.

The House bill also addresses campus safety in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings by proposing that institutions develop plans to notify the campus community within 30 minutes of emergencies.

Although the timeframe might challenge some universities, Creamer said Kent State should be able to stick to that recommendation with its alert monitoring system. He said the university has already put $1 million toward campus safety.

Creamer said he expects the final Higher Education Act, which has not been renewed since 1998, to back down on many of the issues opposed by state legislatures and the higher education community.

“Our assumption is that it will be something in the end that higher education is looking for today,” he said.

Contact administration reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].