Republicans, Democrats spar over education bill

Amy Horst

A bill governing many aspects of student financial aid is expected to go before the U.S. House of Representatives in coming days, House spokespeople said.

A Republican version of the bill has not yet been officially released, and the Democratic version was referred to a House subcommittee last fall.

The bill is a major part of the Higher Education Act, a federal law regulating administration of federal higher education programs. The act is renewed every five years.

“The Higher Education Act is responsible for helping millions of students achieve a college education, and our intent is to reform the program to ensure college access and, in fact, expand college access,” said Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Marrero said because of the bill’s size and goals, it is difficult to pinpoint which parts would be most important.

Josh Straka, spokesman for Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said he doubts the bill will go before the House anytime soon, and said he thinks the legislation will be an “unprecedented partisan bill.”

“There’s been very vague information coming out of the Republican leadership on the committee, to the point where the Democratic leadership has not seen the legislation,” Straka said.

He said the ranking Democrat on the education and workforce committee was not invited to an April 22 meeting that went over plans for finishing work on the act.

Marrero said House Democrats have been involved in the bill’s creation, and they will have more chances to change the bill when it is in the committee.

Straka said he is also concerned about a part of the Republicans’ bill that would allow for-profit higher education institutions to get all their funding from the federal government. Currently, such institutions must get at least 10 percent of their funding from outside sources.

Larry Zaglaniczny, director of congressional relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said his group submitted more than 100 recommendations on what they would like the legislation to look like.

He said the association would like assurances of funding and accessibility for the Pell Grants program and an increase in loan limits because loan limits for first-year students have not increased since 1986. Also, loan limits for all other students have not increased since 1992, he said.

The Republican and Democratic versions of the bill will likely contain some similarities. For instance, both bills propose allowing students to use Pell Grants for year-round study.

Because about 57 percent of University students have some form of financial aid, the bill will directly affect them, said Kris Wright, director of the Office of Student Finance.

“It’s going to determine how students will be able to fund their education, and how much it’s going to cost to pay off loans,” Wright said.

Another part of the unreleased bill that has drawn criticism would require TRiO programs to use 10 percent of their funding to start new programs.

TRiO is a series of federal programs that aim to help low-income Americans enter college and succeed after graduation.

But TRiO already provides the opportunity for new applicants to succeed, said Aloida Zaragoza, director of the University’s Upward Bound TRiO program. Forcing the program to use its funds for new programs would undermine the competitive grant-writing process and leaves too much to the discretion of the Department of Education, Zaragoza said.