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GOP Seeks to Start Anew on Higher Education Bill

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GOP Seeks to Start Anew on Higher Education Bill
New spending to be paid for through cuts, savings in other higher education programs

By Charles Dervarics

House Republicans are returning their attention to a slate of Higher Education Act renewal bills this Congressional session, including plans to increase Pell Grants, expand Black college aid and reform the student loan system.

The College Access and Opportunity Act also would renew federal TRIO and GEAR UP programs, two early college initiatives scheduled for deep cuts or outright elimination in the Bush administration’s 2006 budget. Instead of reductions in these programs, House GOP leaders would continue them at their current funding levels.

In a bow to budget pressures, however, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House education committee, says HEA bills this year must be “revenue neutral,” with all new spending paid for through cuts and savings in other higher education programs.

A cornerstone of the Republican bill, H.R. 507, is a gradual long-term increase in Pell Grants until the top grant reaches $5,800 a year by 2013. The current maximum is $4,050.

“We need to reform federal higher education aid programs to put incoming low- and middle- income students back at the front of the line,” Boehner says.

According to the House chairman, HEA in recent years has “drifted away” from its past focus on low- and middle-income students. “We’ve got to change that.”

To help pay for the expansion, the bill would cut what Republicans term excessive subsidies to lenders who profit from student loans. Boehner says the plan would “permanently” shut down excess lender subsidies, with Congress channeling the savings to Pell and other programs. He says the bill also includes reductions in student loan fees.

But in a revival of last year’s partisan animosity, a leading House Democrat called the plan insufficient to meet the needs of today’s students.

Years of stagnation and small increases have left a typical Pell Grant worth $800 less than it did 30 years ago, says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., senior Democrat on the Education and the Workforce panel. The bill’s $1,800 Pell increase amounts to an average gain of only 5 percent a year, while college costs are likely to rise substantially over that time period.

Miller also questioned some of the GOP’s student loan policy, claiming that Republican leaders would not completely close the door on loopholes in current law that lead to excessive lender    profits. In particular, it fails to completely close one loophole that has “taxpayers on the hook for more than $1 billion in excessive subsidies to banks that make student loans.”

Students also need continued access to low, fixed-rate consolidation loans that could be phased out under the GOP plan.

The Republican bill also seeks to provide larger Pell Grants for freshmen and sophomores with a record of high achievement as well as ‘year-round’ grants for students who want to accelerate their learning. It also would take steps to simplify the financial aid application process and eliminate what the GOP terms “outdated restrictions” on distance education rules.

For historically Black colleges and universities, the Republican bill would increase the minimum HBCU grant to $750,000. It also would permit colleges to use funds to buy or rent telecommunications equipment and acquire real property near campus for use as instructional facilities.

It also has language to add three new schools to the list eligible for aid under the HBCU program for post-baccalaureate education. Graduate schools at Coppin State University, Alabama State University and Prairie View A&M University would join the list of those institutions eligible for this assistance.

Other provisions of H.R. 507 would simplify the application process for tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, GOP leaders say. Another provision would allow all minority-serving institutions to use grant funds to establish and build their endowments.

Another provision would rewrite rules that may limit Pell Grant aid to a student who attends a low-cost college or university.

“Every year, the soaring cost of higher education is pricing more and more Americans out of the dream of a college education, and preventing them from realizing their full potential in life,” says Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who chairs the 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee, the House panel that will be first to act on the required renewal of HEA programs.

For TRIO, the bill authorizes $836 million next year, identical to current program funding. However, the Bush administration last month released plans to cut that budget by more than half, to $369 million, by terminating two TRIO programs, Talent Search and Upward Bound.

The House bill authorizes $306 million for GEAR UP next year, also the same as current funding. Bush has proposed terminating this college awareness and support program to help fund a new block grant to states for high-school improvement.

Despite the new bills, HEA renewal is not expected to gain quick action in Congress this year. With many federal laws up for renewal, the House will turn first to job training and then to career and technical education, a House aide said. For more information, visit the education committee’s Web site at

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