Congress Sends Higher Ed Bill To President

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Hundreds of thousands of students graduated from high school, applied to college and completed their degrees in the time Congress took to pass the 1,158-page College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2008 on July 31. The votes were 380-49 in the House and 83-8 in the Senate. The president is expected to sign the bill.

The bill, known as H.R. 4137, reauthorizes the Higher Education Act of 1965, which governs federal student aid and other important education policies. It expired in 2003 and had to be extended 13 times.

Through it all, the AFT weighed in on those parts of the bill that members had identified as priority concerns-expanding students' access to college, protecting academic freedom, and preserving institutional (and faculty) autonomy. On the morning of the vote, which took place the day before Congress left for summer recess, AFT president Randi Weingarten sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to support H.R. 4137 and applauding the bipartisan efforts of education committee chairs Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) as well as Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.).

"H.R. 4137 will make higher education more affordable," Weingarten noted, "and allow colleges, universities and faculty to continue to define and maintain the standards for student achievement."

In particular, Weingarten praised the following provisions:

Pell Grants and student persistence. H.R. 4137 makes Pell Grants year-round—a boon to nontraditional students—and increases the maximum award amount to $8,000 in 2014. It enhances programs that help students persist through to degree despite financial, academic or other challenges.

Loan forgiveness. Under the Direct Loan Program, those serving the public interest can have part of their loans forgiven. This includes teachers, some faculty, school counselors, librarians, early childhood educators, speech-language pathologists and audiologists, nurses, mental health professionals and others.

Student loan program integrity. The bill requires lenders to adopt a code of conduct and provide enhanced consumer disclosures with respect to private education loans.

Accreditation. A sticking point with the Bush administration, the bill blocks the U.S. Department of Education administration from issuing rules to regulate the accreditation process and how colleges measure student learning.

Textbook costs and faculty staffing policies. H.R. 4137 mandates that institutions give students more information about textbooks with an eye to helping contain students' costs, but the requirement does not encroach upon the instructor's right to choose appropriate textbooks. It also requires institutions to provide information about who is teaching classes, the numbers of part-time and full-time faculty, and—for the first time—graduate teaching assistants' teaching load and each institution's faculty-to-student ratio.

Teacher quality. Through Title II, the bill provides resources to schools of education to improve teacher preparation programs. Because the section deals in part with compensation and staffing issues, the AFT is pleased that it also includes language protecting collective bargaining.

Weingarten's letter also expresses some concerns the AFT has with the bill:

Academic Freedom. The AFT is pleased that restrictive language known as the so-called Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR), which was contained in an earlier bill, was substantially neutralized in the final bill. While the union remains opposed to the inclusion of any such language in the bill, Weingarten expressed appreciation that the provision does recognize the differing missions and roles of colleges and universities, and reaffirms that the free exchange of ideas is fundamental to higher education.

College costs. The AFT is committed to keeping costs within reach of low- and middle-income students and believes the State Higher Education Spending Chart is a means for letting the public monitor the effect of state funding cuts on tuition increases. At the same time, the AFT does not believe in imposing penalties on institutions that are forced to increase tuition because of state cutbacks and increases in other costs. Identifying areas for cost reductions could have unintended consequences for faculty and staff.

Fraud and abuse. The for-profit sector lobbied hard to get rid of the "90/10" rule, which requires that at least 10 percent of an institution's revenue must come from nonfederal student aid programs. The AFT is concerned that the bill's loosening of the rule will lead to more fraud and abuse.

H.R. 4137 followed a torturous path to completion. For many years after the Higher Ed Act expired, the reauthorization process languished in a Republican-controlled Congress. Two years ago, when Democrats took control, leaders moved rapidly to pass some parts of the act separately. One bill, made part of budget reconciliation legislation, delivered a $20 billion infusion of student aid dollars, the largest post-WWII aid increase. More recently, Congress passed an expansion of the GI Bill.

As Congress went through the political process of reauthorizing this bill, the AFT communicated with elected officials in numerous ways: through its Activists for Congressional Education and e-Activist programs; with specially commissioned reports on accountability, persistence and academic staffing realities; and by forming a coalition called Free Exchange on Campus that fights challenges to academic freedom on the state and federal level. The AFT's higher ed and other divisional members also paid visits to their elected officials and sent hundreds of letters to members of Congress.

August 1, 2008