Higher education bill still under review in House

Lacey Crisp

With 20 working days left in the legislative session, federal lawmakers are still debating a higher-education bill that expires Sept. 30.

The renewal of the Higher Education Act would increase loan limits, change loan interest rates and some loan programs, while opening more programs to for-profit institutions to receive federal aid.

“This is a comprehensive and long-term project that we are working on and is a very important bill,” said Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Marrero said there are aspects of the bill that Democrats and Republicans disagree on, but there are also areas of agreement.

“This bill reflects a bipartisan view to expand college affordability to all students,” Marrero said.

Phil Lewenstein works to administer state financial aid services and provides early educational programs to help lower-income students get into school through the Education and Services Department.

“Ideally, this will be an opportunity to open up college access for most students,” Lewenstein said. “It’s just not coming together in the backdrop of an election year.”

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said she is skeptical of the bill.

“We are better with the status quo than the Republican bill because for-profit institutions would be eligible for grants,” McCollum said.

The College Affordability and Access bill is one of many parts of the Higher Education bill, which needs to be reauthorized every five years. This year the Congress has split the bill into five separate bills instead of one large, all-encompassing bill.

The House removed an amendment to the bill that would have punished schools that increase tuition by double the rate of inflation for more than three years.

Another aspect of the bill would also extend availability of Pell Grants from fall and spring semesters to year-round eligibilities.

McCollum said the proposed bill would put a yearly cap of $5,800 for each student on Pell Grants through 2011.

“I am afraid that this bill is not allowing for affordability for students, especially when it comes to the Pell Grants,” McCollum said.

President George W. Bush has proposed additional Pell Grant money for prospective students who take rigorous high school and college courses.

Traditionally, Pell Grants have been awarded based solely on financial need.

“This bill does nothing to address the real problem, which is the high cost of tuition and making it affordable to go to college,” McCollum said.

For the next school year the state has cut the University’s funding by about 15 percent, McCollum said. That amounts to almost $196 million.

“Students and families need to understand where the increases are coming from – the State Legislature, not the federal government,” McCollum said.

The College Affordability and Access bill proposes to lower loan origination fees and raise loan limits to help with increasing tuition costs.

The current bill expires on Sept. 30, but if lawmakers do not reauthorize a new bill by that date, the current version of the bill will remain in effect.

University Vice Provost Craig Swan said it’s too early to have a sense about what’s going to happen with the bill.

“I am disappointed because I have heard that the Direct Student Loan program is at risk,” Swan said. “That program has served students very well in the past.”

John Engelen, director of University Relations, said Congress members need more time to examine the full impact of the bill.

“I think that some of the concepts that have been tossed out take time,” Engelen said. “(Congress members) have a lot of work to do on higher education funding before a bill like this can be passed.”

Engelen said it is unlikely that the bill will passed before the session closes this September.