Saturday, August 2, 2008

House passes overdue higher-ed bill

The House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed legislation to control rising tuition and textbook costs.

Among its wide-ranging provisions, the bill would require states to maintain higher-education funding and to justify fee increases, and textbook publishers would need to provide more information on lower-priced options.

Thursday's 380-49 vote sent the latest incarnation of the Higher Education Act, which expired in 2003, to the Senate. It is expected to approve it today. The long-debated law was last reauthorized in 1998.

The law should prevent further erosion of state higher-education funding, said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

"Too often, we provide more federal assistance and then states take away higher-education support," Miller told the Times shortly after the vote. "This should be a partnership."

Some experts lauded Congress for cracking down on more costly private student loans. The bill would require that borrowers be told the full cost of those loans and would prohibit fees for students who pay off their loans early.

But the legislation does not require notice to schools when students take out the more costly loans, a provision supporters say would ensure students are aware of cheaper options.

"We see it as a good step forward, but an incomplete effort," said Lauren Asher, vice president of the Berkeley-based Institute for College Access and AdvertisementSuccess.

University of California leaders said they were happy about several provisions, including one that would allow low-income students to collect Pell grant money during the summer months. But the bill also adds layers of bureaucracy, said Carolyn Henrich, a UC legislative director, such as several added reports to be submitted to federal regulators.

Despite years of negotiation, the package changes little for colleges and universities, said Patrick Callan, president of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The Higher Education Act, generally renewed every five years, normally prompts more of a national discussion than this version did, Callan said.

"It's probably the least consequential of all the Higher Education Act reauthorizations that have been passed," he said. "At certain points in time, it's in the best interests of the country to have that discussion about the future of higher education."

With Congress having taken several interim actions to increase financial aid and make other substantive changes, lawmakers reserved the Higher Education Act for mostly cost-related items, said Miller, who sponsored the bill. He said he plans to focus his legislation on community colleges in the coming months.

"We could have had this long intellectual discussion about higher education," he said. "We decided to make this one about access and affordability."

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