Financial aid bill

Coralie Carlson

“House members overwhelmingly approved a higher education bill late Wednesday that would preserve affirmative action and boost financial aid as long as recipients aren’t pushing drugs.
The Higher Education Act, which shapes federal financial aid and program funding for the next five years, passed by a 414-4 vote. The bill would lower interest rates on student loans and raise caps on Pell Grants while limiting eligibility for drug offenders.
Officials expect the Senate to start floor debate on companion legislation as early as today. After it passes through the Senate and a conference committee, President Clinton must sign the bill to make it law.
Clinton already threatened to veto the legislation, insisting the student loan provisions are too generous to banks. But House officials said Clinton’s opposition won’t block the bill.
“We’re confident with that veto-proof majority we can push this through the House and Senate and send it to the administration,” said Bill McCarthy, press secretary for the Committee on Education and Work Force. More than two-thirds of members voted to pass the bill, which would be enough to overcome a veto.
Interest rates on student loans would drop from 8.2 percent to 7.4 percent on July 1. Fearing the lower rates will drive banks out of the programs, the House plan subsidizes banker’s losses — against the administration’s wishes.
In another financial aid boost, representatives increased the maximum amount of money awarded to students through Pell Grants. For the 1998-99 school year, the maximum Pell Grant is $3,000. This bill would boost that number to $4,500 for the following year and $5,300 for 2003-2004.
“The intent and the philosophy are excellent,” said Phil Lewenstein, director of communications for the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office. “The question is, how much will they really fund?”
Lawmakers need to fund the Pell Grant program on an annual basis, which they historically have not done, Lewenstein said.
Not all students will reap the financial aid rewards. The bill bars students convicted of drug offenses — including possession and sales — from receiving aid.
Under these new guidelines, students become ineligible for aid for one year after their first conviction, two years following a second conviction and indefinitely after a third.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, argued that students could rape, murder or steal without facing such harsh penalties.
“That’s very inconsistent language, to say the least,” St. Pierre said.
After heated floor debates, lawmakers wrung out two provisions from the bill that the higher education community considered unfriendly, said Tom Etten, director of federal relating race or gender in enrollment policies. The amendment is the third ions at the University.
The House voted 249-171 against an amendment prohibiting universities that receive federal funds from usattempt by Republicans this session to implement anti-affirmative action policies.
Legislators also extracted a measure requiring colleges to notify athletes four years in advance before dropping sports programs. Etten said universities nationwide expressed concern about this government interference in campus affairs.
“I think in terms of keeping the bad stuff out of this bill, we did OK,” Etten said.