Tucked inside nearly 1,200 pages of the Higher Education Act, Congress has inserted a variety of new or expanded policies that may help more low-income students attend and succeed in college.
In addition to a $9,000 authorized Pell Grant and more aid to minority-serving colleges — which are among the bill’s high-profile provisions — the Higher Education Opportunity Act has programming to help single parents and part-time students, expand loan forgiveness to graduates in high-need professions and reward states for their support for public higher education.
“This historic legislation seeks to help ensure that the prospect of attending and graduating from college does not become an impossible dream in America,” says Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., chief author of one new provision, a state “maintenance of effort” rule that would punish states failing to maintain current levels of spending on higher education.
States that fail to sustain their funding would lose access to a college-access challenge grant designed to increase enrollment of low-income students.
The provision is “a critical measure toward stemming the tide of steep tuition increases at public higher education institutions across the country and making college more accessible to all qualified students,” he adds.
The federal government also would gain more authority to regulate private loans, a fast-growing segment of student borrowing that has come under criticism for high fees and interest rates levied against needy students.
The new bill requires more consumer disclosures about private loans, and colleges must notify students about other federally subsidized aid that may be available to them as an alternative to this more costly borrowing.
“This provision will help ensure that students receive the counseling they need,” says Dr. Philip Day, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid
For minority-serving institutions, increased assistance for technology and for graduate programs at Black colleges have earned praise. The final bill, however, also includes $100 million as a first-ever pot of money to fund Hispanic-serving institutions with graduate programs.
“For the first time, Congress is authorizing $100 million for graduate programs at these institutions, something that HACU has been an advocate of for some time,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.
The final bill also includes:
• Language prohibiting the secretary of education from regulating the academic affairs of accrediting agencies;
• A new Web site with information for students and families on tuition prices, graduation rates and Web-based calculators of expected costs at specific institutions;
• A new national center on support services and best practices for colleges regarding students with disabilities;
• A new scholarship program for active duty military members and their families;
• Grants to colleges to design and implement green and energy-efficient practices;
• Support for a Center for Best Practices to Support Single Parent Students;
• Loan forgiveness of up to $10,000 for educators, first responders, police officers, nurses, firefighters and U.S. military members; and
• An expansion of Pell Grants for students with certain intellectual disabilities and a ban on Pell Grants to sex offenders.
To help curb textbook costs, Congress would require publishers to include prices on unbundled as well as bundled versions of academic books. Sponsors say the provision is designed to combat a growing practice of publishers adding expensive and unneeded CD-ROMs to textbooks at a significantly higher cost.
Students currently spend about $900 a year on textbooks, or 20 percent of tuition at a typical university and 50 percent of typical tuition at a community college, according to U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (USPIRG).
Lawmakers also would help more students qualify for the new Academic Competitiveness Grant program that rewards students for rigorous high school study. Under the new language, part-time students and students enrolled in certificate programs could receive this aid. The program previously was open only to full-time students in degree programs.
Although President Bush signed the bill in August, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has expressed mixed views of the measure. The plan “seeks to challenge many complex and challenging issues,” she noted in a statement. However, she criticized Congress for creating more than 60 “new, costly and duplicative programs.”
Leading higher education associations also had a balanced view of the package. Representatives of the American Council on Education, American Association of Community Colleges and other associations applauded the new spending and programming for low-income students. Yet it also contains an “extraordinary number” of new reporting and regulatory requirements, says Molly Corbett Broad, ACE president.
“Although some of these have been made less onerous as the legislative process has proceeded, the total volume of new federal requirements remain considerable,” she says.
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