After years of debate, Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill to renew the Higher Education Act and made changes in a variety of programs, from Pell Grants and student loans to those reserved for minority-serving institutions.
The affirmative vote on what is now called the Higher Education Opportunity Act sends the measure to the White House for President Bush's signature. While administration officials say they object to some provisions of the plan, the president is expected to sign the bill.
House and Senate negotiators met for months to resolve final details of the HEA reauthorization bill, which had stalled in Congress in recent years. But the final measure--more than 1,000 pages--is drawing bipartisan support.
"It puts smart strategies in place to improve our student aid process, restore confidence in our student loan programs and provide more low-income, first-generation and minority students the chance to pursue a college education;' says Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness.
For needy students, the bill would increase the maximum Pell Grant from $4,800 to $6,000 in 2009 and $8,000 by 2014, a House summary of the plan states. These low-income students could receive Pell Grants on a year-round basis. Despite these provisions, Congress would have to set annual appropriations to support these goals.
Another provision creates the Grants for Access and Persistence (GAP) program, a new matching grant program to help states increase their own need-based aid to students.
For minority-serving colleges and universities, the bill includes a much-discussed plan to provide new federal grants to address the digital divide at these institutions. The U.S. Department of Commerce would administer this program, says Edith Bartley, government affairs director at the United Negro College Fund.
While earlier versions of the bill had proposed $250 million annually for this initiative, the final agreement does not set a recommended funding level. But the program would be open to HBCUs, Hispanicserving institutions and tribal colleges to address technology issues.
Among other purposes, grantees could use funds to develop distance learning and other technology education services, provide professional development to faculty, partner with other MSIs on technology issues and use technology to enhance math, science and engineering research.
"This is great news for our minority-serving institutions," says Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., a Congressional Black Caucus member who has co-sponsored the legislation for the past six years. "This bill establishes an important foundation in closing the digital divide and ensuring equal opportunity for all students"
Lawmakers also created a new budget line item for many graduate programs not currently covered under the Title III program for historically Black colleges and universities. …