On the Road to Reauthorization: With the Higher Education Act Up for Reauthorization, the Fate of Student Aid and the Future of Colleges' Regulatory Independence Is Uncertain

By Lane, Kristina | Black Issues in Higher Education, September 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

On the Road to Reauthorization: With the Higher Education Act Up for Reauthorization, the Fate of Student Aid and the Future of Colleges' Regulatory Independence Is Uncertain


Lane, Kristina, Black Issues in Higher Education


As Congress returns to work this month, it has plenty on its plate, but all eyes and hopes in higher education will be pinned on the reauthorization of the legislative behemoth known as the Higher Education Act.

Though the renewal of the act itself isn't in doubt, educators are still waiting to see what the massive bill will contain. Will it give poor students more tuition help? Less? Will colleges soon find themselves scrambling to justify their costs and their graduation rates to government auditors? Decisions about these and other far-reaching policy questions will all be decided over the next few months.

The 1965 Higher Education Act is reauthorized every six years. During reauthorization, both houses of Congress hold hearings in Washington, inviting educators, advocacy groups and other policy analysts to examine the law and offer suggestions about what works, what doesn't and--perhaps most importantly--what programs need more money.

After the House of Representatives and Senate draft legislation they can agree on, they send it to the president. Once the measure becomes law, the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for administering and enforcing it.

According to Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is overseeing reauthorization, the House has held 10 hearings so far, and plans to finish its work on the bill by the end of year. The chairman of the committee, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and one of the subcommittee chairmen, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., are two of the key players.

The Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in the Senate will probably do most of its work on the legislation in 2004, Marrero said, after which the two houses will meet in a conference committee to draft the final measure they send to President Bush.

Marrero said it's important to remember that in terms of funding, the reauthorizing committees don't control how much money a program ultimately gets; that's up to the appropriations committees.

"Appropriators could go below suggested funding; it happens all the time. They are forced to appropriate whatever money is available," she says. "It's not a regular occurrence that an appropriation would be the same as an authorization level--it's often lower."

Money for higher education is earmarked in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill.

IT'S ALL ABOUT ACCESS

As reauthorization takes shape on Capitol Hill, most agree that the ultimate goal is to increase access to higher education for disadvantaged students particularly those from low-income families. The soaring cost of higher education is barring these students from pursuing college degrees, officials say, and the federal government should do something about it.

"Despite billions of dollars we've put into student-aid programs, low-income students still remain underrepresented in schools compared to middle- and upper-income students," says Chris Simmons, assistant director of government relations at the American Council on Education (ACE).

Simmons said community colleges are vital to these discussions on access, because they enroll a majority of the low-income students and can speak knowledgeably of their plight.

According to a report by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, an independent group commissioned by Congress to study financial aid, 168,000 low- and moderate-income high-school graduates who qualified for some form of postsecondary education couldn't afford to attend any college in 2002. Financial constraints kept another 406,000 students from attending a four-year college. The report, "Empty Promises: The Myth of College Access in America," also predicts that in the first decade of the 21st century, two million college-qualified students from low- and moderate-income families won't be able to afford any college at all. …

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